Abuse is traumatic and devastating for people of all ages. And older adults can find it especially challenging to connect with the support they need to escape violence. That’s why, in 2005 in New York City, The Weinberg Center opened its doors to those 60 and over who need a safe place to go to escape elder abuse.
“Older people don’t necessarily feel that a lot of the domestic violence services and service providers are for them. They don’t necessarily feel like they could go to a traditional domestic violence shelter or a family justice center,” says Joy Solomon, the director and managing attorney of the Weinberg Center.
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While traditional shelters may, in fact, offer services and support for older people, when senior survivors see childcare centers and posters about young families there, they may perceive that the services are not for them.
Barriers to Getting Help
For older people, other factors may complicate their ability to get help for abuse. They may have to deal with situations and concerns that often are not issues for younger people, such as the following.
- Older People May Have Faced Abuse for Years
Older people may have experienced a lifetime of abuse, which has worn them down. “Maybe they were staying for the kids. Their inner resources, external resources, and access to resources diminish over time, especially if they don’t feel like the system is accessible or there for them,” Solomon says.
2. Medical Conditions That Complicate Things
Older people may suffer from medical conditions that make it difficult for them to recognize and report their abuse. Cognitive impairment, dementia and the effects of taking or not taking medication can affect older people in complicated ways.
“I’m an advocate for older people to have the right to engage in healthy sexuality. A person who has a diagnosis of dementia can consent. But we need to be making sure we are protective of a person who is impaired,” Solomon says.
And for older people with health problems, violence can have cascading effects. For example, an abuser breaking a survivor’s finger in a fit of violence is traumatic for anyone, at any age. But for an older person who uses a cane, a broken finger also affects their mobility. “Injuries can have a more significant and serious impact,” Solomon says.
Medical issues could also factor into an abuser’s behavior. For example, a long-term partner may change behavior and become violent due to medication reactions or dementia.
3. Younger Family Members May Be Abusers
Solomon says she and her colleagues see more cases where children are harming parents or grandparents than they do of intimate partner violence.
These family members may live with a parent or grandparent, or have access to their funds. “There’s usually some component of financial exploitation and there’s almost always psychological or emotional abuse or mistreatment,” Solomon says.
Older people are less likely to report abuse at the hands of these family members. “There’s a different kind of shame attached to it,” she says. “And there are questions like, ‘Where am I going to live? And, ‘Who’s going to take care of me?’”
Older people may also not be able to return to the workforce if they need to separate themselves from an abuser. “They often don’t really have the opportunity to make money for themselves—it presents a lot of challenges,” Solomon says.
4. Older People Face Cultural Biases
Solomon says people may not consider that older people might be victims of sexual assault, so they don’t ask about sexual violence.
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“Crimes like sexual assault and rape are crimes of violence—they don’t have to do with sexuality, so older people can be victims of that too,” Solomon says. “We need to do a better job as a society to really understand that older people do experience intimate partner violence.”
When an older person comes into the ER with bilateral bruising (bruises in the same places on both sides of the body), which is a possible sign of physical harm, they might not be asked, “Did he hurt you anywhere else?” or, “Did this happen before?”
And older people might not be asked about sexual assault. “Sometimes it comes to light that a person has what appears to be a urinary tract infection and it turns out to be chlamydia, so we have to ask, ‘OK, let’s figure out how this happened,’” Solomon says.
5. Seniors May Not Be Aware of Online Resources
While many seniors are tapping away on their smartphones (the Pew Research Center says 42 percent of seniors own a smartphone), the Center also reports that a third of seniors aren’t venturing online and roughly half of the senior population doesn’t have an Internet connection at home. That’s concerning when it comes to isolated seniors who are being abused. Luckily, programs like Tech Allies and Senior Planet are working to get seniors connected to the Internet and providing free education on technology as well.
Help Is Available for Elders
The Weinberg Center’s shelter for older adults is housed in a skilled nursing facility, so those seeking shelter are part of the greater community. They have access to medical care and activities, and they communicate with other people who live there.
That center is part of Spring Alliance, a network of elder abuse shelters. “We formed an alliance with other shelters across the country. Some follow this model, and others are a little different because the resources in their community are different—they use various places for sheltering space. It’s a model that’s meant to be adaptable to the needs and the resources of the community,” Solomon says.
The alliance shares information and resources to help other organizations find ways to help bring needed shelter to older adults in their communities. For other options for services and support, older people or those who are helping them can visit domesticshelters.org:
- Type in your zip code
- Choose “Filters”
- Under “Demographics Served,” check “Elderly”
Are you worried a senior you know is being abused? Read about one woman who wrote to us afraid that her elderly mom was being abused and what we advised she do.
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