How can I support an older woman who has been abused by her partner?

This post focuses on intimate partner abuse of older women, although older women can also be subjected to abuse by other family members, particularly adult children and/or professional caregivers, whether they live in the home or in an institution.

Young women under the age of 24 are at the highest risk of being killed by their partner or former partner, and women under 34 are at the highest risk of being subjected to intimate partner abuse generally, but older women also face unique challenges and barriers that can increase their vulnerability.

Defining “older”

There is no global definition of what is meant by the term “older.” Some people define it as the traditional age of retirement, which is 65 years of age. Others think of it as the age at which certain benefits and discounts are available. However, that age varies from 55 to 65 depending on the service.

Since being older has many negative images attached to it, we tend to push the definition of older later and later in life as we age ourselves, in an attempt not to have to think of ourselves as older.

In fact, women will feel the effects of ageing differently one from another, depending on a host of factors including physical and mental health, access to services and supports, finances, race, Indigeneity and other social constructions and locations.

We are not attaching a precise age to our discussion of older women. Instead, we are thinking about women who perceive their age to be a negative factor when they consider their options within or as they leave an abusive relationship. For some women, this may be as young as 50; for others as old as 80 or even older.

Challenges and barriers for older women

We do not, as a society, like to think about violence against women. We especially don’t like to think about elderly women being subjected to abuse. This runs contrary to socially constructed images – some positive, some negative – of older women.

As a result, the issue of intimate partner abuse of older women remains under-researched, and it is under-identified, by women themselves and by others , even when they are aware of what is happening.

There are many reasons for this, some of them internal to the woman, some of them family-based and some of them external and systemic.

Internal

An older woman may not identify what is happening to her as abusive and wrong, because intimate partner abuse was not talked about until relatively recently or because it has been going on for so long that it is normalized for her.

She may have a traditional view of gender roles in marriage, accepting the man is the decision-maker and authority figure, or her value system may tell her that a married couple stays together for better and for worse.

She might not talk about the abuse because she sees it as a private matter between her and her husband/abuser.

An older woman may fear she won’t be listened to or believed if she talks about the abuse she has been subjected to. She may experience a great sense of shame about being abused and may think of it as a family secret that cannot be shared with anyone

She may fear that if she speaks up about the abuse and leaves her partner, each of them will wind up living in an institutional setting.

She may have a co-dependent relationship with her partner and be unable to imagine either of them living without the other.

Depending on her age and geographic location, she may be quite isolated, with few friends and limited access to support services.

She may be worried that her partner won’t be able to manage on his own if she leaves him.

Family

The abuse may be so long-standing and entrenched that other family members may not recognize it. It may be normalized by adult children, who grew up exposed to their father abusing their mother.

A woman may be afraid of the reaction of her adult children if she tells them or others that their father has abused her. She may worry that such a disclosure will interfere in her relationship with her children and grandchildren

Systemic

Women become increasingly invisible as they age, so the abuse they are subjected is also invisible. They are not listened to as carefully, and their complaints are often dismissed. Even physical injuries experienced by an older woman as a result of abuse may be mis-identified by family members or health care professionals.

An older woman in an abusive relationship, even if she recognizes it, may be reluctant to tell anyone or report what is happening to the police. She may fear that she won’t be believed, be too afraid to consider leaving her partner or be worried about the impact of a disclosure on her ageing partner

Older people generally have more limited financial resources, so leaving her relationship may seem economically impossible.

There are not enough appropriate resources for older women who want to leave their partner. For example, an older woman may not feel comfortable in the communal living setting of a shelter and may not be able to manage the busy-ness and noisiness of shelter life. Intimate partner violence against older women is not properly understood by health care and other service providers.

Kinds of intimate partner abuse of elder women

As with women of any age, the abuse a woman who is older may be subjected to can be physical, sexual, psychological, social, financial or legal. In addition, an older woman may be more likely to be subjected to abuse in the form of neglect than would be the case for a younger woman. By neglect, we mean a partner who ignores the woman’s medical needs, withholds access to medication or assistive devices (hearing aids, walker, etc.) or, if she is ill or disabled, does not fulfill the caregiving role properly.

What service providers can do

Here are some best practices that will be useful to service providers in their work with all women, but especially when supporting an older woman:

  • Be alert to legal and safety issues, even when the woman does not have young children. It is easy to focus on custody and access as the only urgent issues women have, but women without custody issues, including older women, also have urgent legal needs
  • Use active listening skills so you can hear between the lines. An older woman may not be able to tell you directly about the abuse she has experienced
  • Don’t patronize older women. Experience and wisdom often come with age
  • Look for the strengths as well as the vulnerabilities in older women
  • Meet without adult children present, at least initially, so you can get a sense of her relationship with them, investigate how she thinks they will react to her decision to leave their father (i.e. will they align with the abuser?) and check for the possibility of abuse by them (they may have colluded with the father over the years and may be emotionally or financially controlling of their mother or even physically abusive to her)
  • Make sure the woman knows that she is in charge of her relationship with you and of her family law case
  • Be familiar with resources in your community for older women
  • Have resources about elder abuse that she can take away with her
  • Make no assumptions about her technological skills one way or the other. Ask her, and then proceed accordingly. If she does not use the internet, make sure you can communicate with her without email or text message and print out any online resources or information she needs. On the other hand, many older women are very tech savvy and are active on social media, use email, text message and so on. In this case, you need to talk to her about internet safety

Other resources

The Older Women’s Network

Elder Abuse: The Hidden Crime, from CLEO

Elder Abuse Ontario

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