- 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.