At Genesis Women’s Shelter, we know that domestic violence is an equal opportunity epidemic. There are no neighborhoods or socioeconomic groups that abuse doesn’t touch, nor is it restricted to specific age groups. According to the National Council on Aging, 10% of Americans aged 60 and up have experienced some form of abuse. The actual percentage is likely wildly higher: it is estimated that only 1 in 14 cases of elder abuse are reported, impacting as many as five million seniors a year.
When most people think about elder abuse, neglectful or violent behavior from a caregiver often comes to mind. In actuality, the large majority of the time the abuser is a family member, most commonly a spouse. When considering domestic violence in the homes of mature adults, victims aged 60 and up have unique vulnerabilities. Older women are less likely to leave an abusive relationship and more likely to experience violence for a longer amount of time. This increased exposure comes with a price: while broken bones can heal, long-term abuse can cause irreversible physiological damage like heart disease, chronic pain, asthma and arthritis.
Older women also often have physical limitations that can make them more susceptible to violence. While women of all ages may be emotionally or financially dependent on their abuser, some older women have the unique disadvantage of relying on someone physically. The abuser will use this as his weapon of choice in a variety of ways: withholding or overprescribing medication, denying food or water, neglecting hygienic care, refusing medical care or a variety of other manipulations.
In addition to this, society often holds prejudices about the elderly which can reduce the likelihood of the victim getting help. When we see a younger person with physical marks like bruises or scratches, abuse might cross our minds, but with the elderly we most likely assume that she fell or that she bruises easily. The abuser can also easily twist the victim’s complaints by intentionally manipulating family members and blaming mental frailty. “Your mom is really confused right now. She doesn’t remember, but she fell last night on her way to the bathroom. She may be getting dementia.”
Generational values also add a layer of complexity with elder abuse. To most older women, divorce is simply not an option. They are often uncomfortable talking about private matters, especially with strangers. Distrust of younger professionals makes it even more unlikely that they will receive help – “How could this counselor possibly know what I’m going through? I’ve been married longer than she’s been alive.”
She may believe the abuse is her fault or not want her husband to appear in a negative light in front of the family. She may fear institutionalization or worry about getting a job because she hasn’t worked in decades. She might wonder where she would go: most domestic violence shelters are unprepared to deal with the frailty of elders and those who have physical or cognitive disabilities.
Fortunately, more services are becoming available for this population. Genesis has recognized the specialized needs of the older demographic and offers a specialized group that meets regularly to break down the isolation and fear these women feel. Although all the women in this group are in different places – some are in long-term relationships where they’ve been married for half a century, while others are in new relationships experiencing abuse for the first time – they find hope and healing together.
We know that in order to end this epidemic, it will take all of us coming together to do our part. Don’t assume all older adults are frail or mentally incompetent. Approach them with respect and sensitivity, understanding they still have strengths and the capability to advocate for themselves. Listen and hear them when they tell you something is wrong. By educating ourselves and understanding the unique challenges associated with elder abuse, we can be her first step away from domestic violence.
Written by Jan Langbein, CEO of Genesis Women’s Shelter