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When Domestic Abuse Happens Later in Life


Domestic abuse or violence isn’t ageist and elderly people are just as susceptible as younger generations to encounter abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. The difference is, the public is much less likely to hear about it.

Some reasons many seniors may stay silent are:

• They grew up and was married at a time when domestic abuse was more tolerated and ignored

• Their values or culture may be different from younger generations

• They have lived with the abuse for many years and their self-esteem has suffered as a result, which could mean abuse has become “normal” to them

• They may feel a sense of shame or guilt for letting the abuse continue for as long as it has.

• They may feel a sense of duty to take care of their aging partner which prevents them from reporting their partner to police for fear of what might happen

• They are financially dependent on their partner

• They may be afraid to live alone after being with their partner for so many years, or may be afraid they will be institutionalised in a care home

• They may not have a support network of family or friends nearby close by

• They may have a lack of information about types of domestic violence and what their alternatives may be

Warning signs of elder abuse may include: 

•  Broken bones, sprains, or dislocations

•  Unexplained signs of injury, such as bruises, welts, or scars, especially if they appear symmetrically on two sides of the body

•  Broken eyeglasses or frames

•  A report of drug overdose or an apparent failure to take medication regularly (a prescription has more or less remaining than it should)

•  A persons refusal to allow you to see the elder alone

•  Being left dirty or unbathed

•  Unsuitable clothing or covering for the weather

•  Unsafe living conditions (no heat or running water, faulty electrical wiring; other fire hazards)

•  Desertion of the elder at a public place

•  Unusual weight loss, malnutrition, dehydration

•  Untreated physical problems, such as bed sores

•  Unsanitary living conditions: dirt, bugs, soiled bedding and clothes

•  Signs of being restrained, such as rope marks on wrists

If you are concerned about an older person and suspect that someone is suffering abuse, we recommend to firstly, learn the signs of domestic abuse and violence and then find the first opportunity to speak to the person who may be at risk in private.

If you or someone you know is experiencing elderly abuse, we at Rehouse to Rehome encourage you to speak to us or someone about what is happening to you and together we’ll figure out what to do next. We will always listen and respect you and we can connect you with others who will do the same.

The Details

Experiencing domestic abuse later in life 

(01 September 2018)
Many older people grew up in a time when what happened in the family home was private and marriage had to be ‘until death do us part’. This can mean abuse is hard to recognise, even by the victim.
By Jess Asato SafeLifes

The facts

  • On average, older victims experience abuse for twice as long before seeking help as those aged under 61 and nearly half have a disability.
  • Victims over the age of 61 are much more likely to experience abuse from an adult family member or current intimate partner than those 60 and under.
  • Older victims are less likely to attempt to leave in the year before accessing help, and more likely to be living with the perpetrator after getting support.
  • Older victims are significantly more likely to have a disability – for a third, this is physical (34%)

Despite this evidence older clients are hugely underrepresented among domestic abuse services. 

The myth versus the reality

When we talk about domestic abuse, most people probably think of a woman in her 30s with children, experiencing physical abuse from her male partner. While of course this is the reality for many, we know that domestic abuse comes in different forms and can happen to anyone of any age. We also know that older people face significant barriers to getting the help they need, which is why we researched and wrote Safe Later Lives, the first in our Spotlight series which looks at victims of domestic abuse who are often ‘hidden’ from services.

“We estimate that 80% of victims/survivors of domestic abuse aged 61 and over are not visible to services.”

Unseen by services

Because of this under-representation, we believe that there is a tendency to assume that domestic abuse simply doesn’t happen in this age group. Of course, this isn’t the case. This perception is particularly damaging, because we know that older victims are more likely to disclose the abuse if they’re asked about it more than once.

One hospital-based domestic abuse professional we spoke to said “you’re often sowing the seeds and it’s the next time or the next time after that [that the victim will disclose abuse and ask for help]. Perhaps the next time that they come into hospital they will want to do something about it, or perhaps the next time the district nurse sees something or tries to speak to them about it they will want to do something.”

Dependent on the perpetrator

Of those older victims/survivors who are visible to services, a quarter have been living with the abuse for more than 20 years. Living with the abuse for such a long time can make it even harder to seek help, particularly when there is a lifetime of home and family at stake.

Another issue for older victims of abuse is that they are often dependent on the abuser for their care. Older people are more likely to suffer from health problems, reduced mobility and other disabilities which can make them more vulnerable to harm. 

“Where the abuser is also the person’s carer, this can be used as a tool for abuse.”

One survivor told us, “I became more physically dependent on my husband as my health deteriorated… I also become quite isolated.” Domestic abuse practitioners we spoke to told us about abusers deliberately withholding medication and food in order to keep the victim weak.

Abuse from family members

It’s important to remember that the perpetrator of domestic abuse isn’t always a partner – especially for older people. Our data shows that for 44% of victims over 60, the perpetrator is an adult family member – compared to just 6% of younger victims. For example, grown up children may deliberately neglect their parent’s care needs or become controlling over their finances. This kind of abuse can make asking for help even more difficult; no one wants to criminalise their own child. 

Generational attitudes to abuse

It’s only recently that as a society we’ve begun to shake off the notion that what happens behind closed doors is nobody else’s business, and that victims of abuse should be heard and believed. Older people are likely to have grown up in a time when what happened in the family home was private, and marriage had to be ‘until death do us part.’ 

“This culture of silence means that many older people struggle to recognise what they’re experiencing as abuse – and if they do there is a perception that no one can help.”

An experienced domestic abuse practitioner told us that her older clients often feel undeserving of support services and say, ‘I’m not sure if I should be here really. Maybe you’d be better off seeing the younger ladies with the kids.’

Making services accessible to older people

It’s important that anyone working with older people is aware of the signs of abuse, and how it can look for older people in particular. 

“It’s also important that services respond to the needs of older victims for example, pressuring an older person to leave the relationship when we know they are statistically less likely to do so may prevent them from seeking help in the future.”

We want professionals in healthcare, the police and social care to have the knowledge and skills to identify domestic abuse in older people, and the confidence to help. We also want to see domestic abuse services working to tailor their advertising materials and ways of working so that older victims know that help is available and relevant to them. Most of all, we want any person experiencing domestic abuse to get the right response to make them safe and well – whoever they are, whatever their age.

Jess Asato is the Head of Public Affairs and Policy at SafeLives 


Have you been affected by these issues?

If you are experiencing domestic abuse or are worried about someone else, call the National Domestic Violence Helpline. (run jointly between Women’s Aid and Refuge) on 0808 2000 247.

You can also call Independent Age’s freephone helpline for information and advice on 0800 319 6789.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Independent Age.


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