By Emily Miller and Alison Hirschel, Michigan Elder Justice Initiative
Domestic violence is a broad term. At its core, it is the intentional infliction of harm to another (family member, spouse, loved one) without regard for that person’s rights or safety. This can manifest in many ways, including: physical (abuse or neglect), economic, emotional, sexual, verbal or psychological threats or actions. These threats or actions are intended to exert power and control over the victim. Domestic violence affects people across generations, socio-economic classes, sexual orientations, geographic locations and gender. The majority of victims are women.
Although it affects every age group, domestic violence can often come with a unique set of complications for older adults. First, while those experiencing domestic violence often fail to report abuse, older victims report domestic violence at an even lower rate. The abuse may be a pattern that has persisted throughout the victim’s life or it may be something that the victim is experiencing for the first time – often related to his or her increased vulnerability or a change in his or her living situation. Regardless of its inception, failure to disclose may be due to the victim’s actual or perceived dependence on the perpetrator (particularly if he or she is the victim’s caregiver or the sole financial provider), a desire to avoid getting the family member or caregiver in “trouble,” isolation from a support network, lack of knowledge about how or to whom to report, or an inability to report when the victim has cognitive or communicative limitations or is constantly under the surveillance of the perpetrator.
Disclosure of abuse often results in retaliation so unless, victims separate from the abuser, they could face serious retribution if they report the domestic violence. Separating from an abusive spouse/caregiver/family member when the victim has been subject to decades of cyclical violence is incredibly daunting, particularly when the perpetrator has succeeded in isolating the victim from family/friends and hidden/withheld financial information and resources that would facilitate the victim’s ability to escape from the abusive situation.
While we frequently think of domestic violence as being something that takes place primarily in intimate partner relationships (ex: husband/wife), older adults who are dependent upon a caregiver, whether they are an adult child, family member or paid assistance, are just as vulnerable to domestic violence. Abusive caregivers use various tactics to gain and maintain control that are more subtle than physical forms of abuse, such as setting rules about where the victim is allowed to go, speak to, eat, do or use their money. Failure of a victim to abide by these rules is usually paired with a threat of harm, threats to withhold medications or food, or threats of nursing home placement to elicit compliance. Victims of one kind of abuse are more likely to suffer additional kinds of abuse and abuse often escalates as the perpetrator becomes more emboldened.
While abuse of older victims may fall into the traditional pattern of power and control, there can also be more complicated family dynamics and decade’s old family tensions as well as issues relating to the capacity of the older victim. Older victims may feel it is more difficult to extricate themselves from their long-standing family and financial relationships, be less willing to seek protection in a shelter and need services and supports not readily available in shelters. Some may not be able to leave their abusive situations until eligibility for services and supports is established and alternate supports are in place, making a quick escape especially difficult. And some victims fear that the perpetrator will seek guardianship of them if they assert their rights to be free from abuse.
For those who are experiencing domestic violence or are concerned that a loved one is in an abusive relationship, there are excellent resources available for reporting, information and support, including the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233, TTY 1-800-787-3224 or www.thehotline.org.