Someone you know
Domestic abuse is often hidden away behind closed doors, sidelined as a private matter. Yet an estimated 1.2 million women experienced domestic abuse last year. It is therefore highly likely that someone you know – a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend – is living in fear as a result of an abusive partner.
"We often assume that if someone has been married or in a relationship for decades that their relationship is a happy and healthy one."
Yet some older women are experiencing domestic abuse, often for years or even decades. Recent data from our member domestic abuse services showed that in the year 2016/17, over one in ten survivors who were being supported by their service had experienced domestic abuse for 20 years or more; while six women who had been supported had experienced abuse for more than 50 years.
"We must recognise that domestic abuse can happen to any woman, of any age, and that it takes a lot of strength for survivors to speak out about what is happening to them."
Older women are least likely to seek help
Despite older women experiencing domestic abuse, they're the age group least likely to access support.
"We know that older women are less likely to access domestic abuse support services with only 3.5% of survivors using community support services and 1.7% of survivors in refuge aged 56 or over."
These statistics from our 2018 Survival and Beyond report tell us that we need to break down the myths about what domestic abuse is and who experiences it. We need to ensure every survivor, whatever her age, knows that she is not alone, that there is help out there.
Older women may face additional difficulties to rebuilding their life free from domestic abuse. They may be socially isolated; they may never have spoken out about their experience of abuse to anyone before and also they may not recognise coercive and controlling behaviour, which was only made a criminal offence in 2015, in their relationship. Yet this form of behaviour is at the heart of domestic abuse and puts a psychological obstacle in the way of a survivor leaving an abusive partner.
"Older women may also face additional barriers such as age-related health issues like dementia or they may even be the sole carer for their abusive partner; this can make it more difficult for them to speak out about what they are experiencing and access the support they need."
Creating a safe space
That’s why we have pioneered our Change That Lasts project, which aims to ensure that no matter who a survivor speaks to she will be listened to, believed and given the right response the first time she reaches out. We are training people in communities on how to create a safe space to talk about domestic abuse, where survivors can receive a helpful response and be put in contact with local support services to make sure they get the help they need.
As part of the Change That Lasts project we are developing a programme targeted at supporting older women. We are training frontline professionals in health and social care to help them identify and understand domestic abuse and feel confident enough to offer support and a helpful response to older survivors.
Following the training, over nine in ten professionals we worked with told us that they better understood the needs of older domestic abuse survivors. Also, 78% told us they had an increased ability to understand the warning signs of coercive controlling behaviour and 86% felt more confident in how to appropriately respond to a survivor disclosing to them.
"By breaking down the silence around domestic abuse and ensuring that whoever a survivor speaks to that she will be listened to, believed and supported according to her needs, we can ensure that every survivor, whatever her age, can rebuild her life free from fear, free from abuse."
Any woman, of any age
We also need to challenge the perceptions about who abuse happens to. That’s why we worked with the production company Ridley Scott Associates to make ‘Do You See Her’, a short film about older women and domestic abuse. The film is a stark reminder that even those closest to a woman who is being abused may not know what is going on behind closed doors. Any woman, of any age, can be forced to live in the invisible prison of domestic abuse including those with adult children and grandchildren. We want to send a clear message to all older women experiencing abuse that you are not alone, Women’s Aid is here for you.
Katie Ghose, is the Chief Executive at Women's Aid
Have you been affected by these issues?
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in a relationship, call the Freephone 24/7 National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247 or visit www.womensaid.org.uk.
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.