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Abuse of Older Women
1. Are Older Women More Likely to Experience Abuse Than Older Men?
Many Canadian community agencies and organizations have found that older women are more likely to be the victims of abuse than older men; older women often represent two thirds of victims in the abuse or neglect cases brought to their attention.(1) The organizations and agencies find men are more likely to be the abusers than women, again usually by a ratio of two to one.
On per capita basis, the rates of abuse and neglect appear to be equivalent for both older men and older women. It has been suggested that aging and ageism are great "equalizers", as they may leave both women and men open to abuse or neglect in later life, especially when the person has disabling conditions and must rely on others. (2)
However, people working with abused older women note greater risks for women because of their social situation:
"Domestic violence is learned behaviour, and passed on from generation to generation. Domestic violence is about power and control... [t]he social expectations of older women as women, wives, mothers, and grandmothers. In many case, older women have grown up with the expectation that if a problem develops in their relationship they have a responsibility to live with it and to make the best of it. This places the responsibility solely on their shoulders..."(3)
There are more older women than older men, especially after about age 75 or 80. That means that number-wise, we would expect to see more abused older women than abused older men, because there are more older women.
Researchers are finding that abuse of older women is much more common than previously expected, and service providers in some settings such as health care are very likely to be working with abused older women. A 2004 report in the United States looked at 92,000 women aged 50 to 79 coming to health clinics. It found that 11% reported experiencing some form of abuse in the past year. (4) Women in their 50s were more likely to identify having being abused than the older women.
2. Gender and Crime
A. Who is more likely to be the victim of abuse crimes, older women or older men?
According to criminal offence reports for 2000 (Statistics Canada), there are more older women who are victims of abuse and more men are abusers. Eighty percent (80%) of the people accused of violently victimizing an older family member were men.
In cases of family violence towards seniors, an adult child or spouse of the senior accounted for almost three-quarters (71%) of victimizations. Older men were most likely to be victimized by their adult children (43% of the abusers). Older women were just as likely to be victimized by their spouses (36% of the abusers) as they were by their adult children (37% of the abusers).(5)
It is important to remember that women can be abusive to older women, too. People tend to assume that women interact in a caring and supportive manner and therefore women cannot be abusers. As a result, there may be a stereotype that abuse occurs by men to women. However, daughters, daughter- in-laws, sisters, other female family members, and in the case of same sex couples, female partners may be abusive too.
B. Does Being an Older Woman Make a Difference in Abuse?
Yes. There are important differences for older men and older women in terms of their social position, societal expectations, health and financial status. For example, it is possible that financial abuse may hurt older women more:
There can also be gender differences in the impact of physical abuse:
Why do more older women have disabling conditions? In part this reflects gender differences and in part it is because the longer people live, the more disabling conditions they tend to have: women tend to live longer.
Older women are much more likely than older men to have one of more chronic diseases such as osteoporosis or arthritis. All these factors can lead to greater risk of injury for women who are in abusive situations. (6)
Older women are diverse. The types of abuse or neglect that the woman may experience can differ, as can its effects and her circumstances. For example, effects of abuse on her life may depend on whether
Studies on the incidence of abuse of women with disabilities suggest that the rate is much higher than in the general population and that between 40 and 80% of women with physical or mental disabilities experience some form of abuse in their lifetime. (7)
3. Is Violence Against Older Women a "Women’s Issue"?
Absolutely. As the report "Silent and Invisible"(3) notes:
"A woman who has been physically abused during her marriage does not become a victim of elder abuse at the age of sixty-five." "Within the family setting, some older women suffer violence and abuse at the hands of their adult children and even grandchildren."
Research indicates that domestic violence in later life may
Older women's relationships may be opposite-sex relationships or same-sex relationships.
4. What Types of Abuse Do Older Women Experience?
"Silent and Invisible" notes that women may experience a variety of abuses from their husbands, or, in some cases, their children:
"They may be dealing with psychological abuse in the form of harassment, verbal aggression, intimidation, insults, threats, and various ways of enforcing isolation. In some cases their activities are monitored and outside contacts are controlled. They may be experiencing financial abuse, including withholding money for food and other basic essentials.
Financial abuse often occurs at the hand of sons or daughters, rather than husbands. Financial abuse and physical abuse can also come from a daughter's boyfriend. Some women experience sexual assault throughout married life, or sexual abuse begun in later life. An older woman with mobility problems or other significant health problems may experience neglect from her husband or children.
Physical abuse may occur in combination with emotional abuse, and often the mix involves sexual as well as physical and emotional abuse. Some women have been subjected to emotional, physical and, in at some cases, sexual abuse in childhood, and then entered into adult relationships where they suffered the same kinds of abuse. Some had several adult relationships characterized by these forms of abuse."(3)
Abuse may be something new in the older woman's life or it may have been going on throughout the marriage until the husband's or partner's move to a long term care facility or death. For some older women, abuse may start in childhood from a parent or other relative, then continue through marriage. Sometimes the woman remarries into another abusive relationship. Other older women have good marriages, and only begin to experience abuse after becoming widowed or divorced and when they are in a new relationship in later life. (3)
Some older woman experience abuse at the hands of a spouse or partner who is developing a dementia and who has become aggressive and violent. There are few services for women in this situation. Also a woman may be developing dementia and be abused by her “well” spouse or partner. An older woman in an isolated rural community may rarely see a service provider of any sort. (3)
Abuse by a spouse or partner is likely to be psychological or physical abuse, whereas abuse by one's children is more likely to be financial exploitation or neglect. (6)
5. Why Do Older Women Stay in Abusive Relationships?
Understanding Older Women's Lives and Responses Better
Older women in abusive relationships stay for many of the same reasons that people in non-abusive relationships stay together, out of feelings of love, duty, financial need, responsibility to their children and their community. But many older women in abusive relationships also stay out of fear. Click here for a good description of Why Women Stay in Battering Relationships.
Many older women were raised with social and religious expectations that their marriage was a covenant, and therefore it cannot and should not be dissolved. In Canada there was no federal Divorce Law until 1968. Until then divorce was a privilege of the rich. Even then, divorce was treated as "unusual" or "deviant" or a personal failing.
After that point in time, the Divorce Law in Canada permitted people to divorce if they could show there was cruelty or adultery. However, property such as the family farm or business was usually registered in the husband's name, and was considered the husband's property and not a family asset. That meant that until provincial law reform in the mid to late 1970s in most parts of Canada a divorcing woman, or a woman living in a long-term common law relationship could be left destitute. (8)
It was not until 1986, that "real" divorce reform occurred in Canada, when it began to allow for a divorce if the husband and wife have been separated for at least one year. It also provided for spousal support. However, even today, abused older women are often told by their abusive spouse "If you leave me, you will get nothing", and they believe it.
Throughout the lives of many older women, the possibility of leaving simply was not an option, for social, legal, and economic reasons. Many of the social and legal rights that today's women may take for granted, did not exist when older women were younger. (9)
Similarly, many people are not aware that many of the resources that are available for young abused women did not exist when older women were young. People are often unaware that the first transition homes ("women's shelters") were not established in Canada until 1972. Today, these resources are often stretched thin, and although things are changing in some communities, some shelters may not be suitable to an older woman. Abused older women often consider these resources as only for abused young women, not themselves.(2)
It is very important to understand the emotional struggles of abused older women and the effect of other factors. For example, an older woman's financial security is fundamentally tied to her marital status, whether or not she is being abused. Many older couples may be financially comfortable or able to "get by". In contrast over 45% of unattached* older women live below the poverty line, because they seldom have the resources to financially rebuild their lives. Separation or divorce is emotionally difficult, and it can be financially precarious for an older woman.
* This term refers to people who are single, widowed or divorced.
(1) Pittaway, E. & Gallagher, E. (1995). A Guide to Enhancing Services for Abused Older Canadians. Victoria, BC: British Columbia Office for Seniors.
(2) B.C. Coalition to Eliminate Abuse of Seniors (May, 2003). Profile of Later Life Abuse in British Columbia. Prepared for and the Ministry of Children, Aboriginal and Women's Affairs, Victoria: B.C. Also , Spencer, C. (1998) Sources and Consequences of Abuse for Older Women GRC News, Vol. 17 (2) 6-8.
(3) Hightower, M.J. (Greta) Smith, M. J. and Hightower, H. Silent and Invisible: A Report on the Abuse and Violence in the Lives of Older Women in British Columbia and Yukon. Executive Summary. B.C. Yukon Society of Transition Houses.
(4) Mouton, C.P., Rodabough, R. J., Rovi, S.L. D. , Hunt, J.L., Talamantes, M.A., Brzyski, R.G. and Burge, S.K. (April, 2004). Prevalence and 3-year incidence of abuse among postmenopausal women. American Journal of Public Health, 94, 605-612.
(5) Dauvergne, M. (March, 2003). Family violence against seniors. Canadian Social Trends, No. 68. pp: 10 -14, at 13.
(6) Lithwick,M., Beaulieu, M., Gravel,S. & Straka, S.M. (1999). Mistreatment of older adults: perpetrator victim relationships and interventions. Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect. 11 (4), 95-112.
(7) Violence and People with Disabilities. (1994) Prepared by L'Institut Roeher Institute for the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence. Online at: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hppb/familyviolence/html/fvdisabliterature_e.html
(8) See Murdoch v. Murdoch,  1 S.C.R. 423; Peter v. Beblow  1 S.C.R. 1280; Pettkus v. Becker  S.C.R. 834; Rawluk v. Rawluk,  1 S.C.R. 70.
(9) For example, Herbert Marx, (Quebec's Minister of Justice in 1986) has pointed out it is only in the past 60 years that women in Quebec have achieved full rights of citizenship. Quebec women only received the right to vote in 1960; married women were only allowed to enter into contracts without their husband's signature after 1961. Up to 1970, they could not sit on juries in Quebec. Women were legally subordinated to their husbands who had a right of property over their wives.Women faced similar barriers in other provinces.
Quebec began a "zero tolerance" policy in 1986, by treating domestic violence as a crime and investigating and prosecuting it as such. Marx noted that prior to the introduction of this proactive approach, "Courts then rarely convicted wife batterers". Prior to 1986, the lack of legal action was usually justified by authorities who felt "imprisoning an abusive husband would deprive his wife of financial support." Herbert Marx noted that in the province today, 10 percent of women have been victims of domestic violence and children in these homes "grow up to believe that violence is a normal way to control women," thus perpetuating the cycle.
See M. Regenstreif, "Judge urges action against domestic violence". Canadian Jewish News, (June 29, 2000) www.cjnews.com/pastissues/00/june29-00/front3.htm
Resources and Links
Parent Abuse: A Well-Kept Secret
Education Wife Assault
Why Women Stay in Battering Relationships
Expanding Justice for Older Women Report, Older Women's Network, September 2005
If you are looking for an article that helps explain about the lives and circumstances of older women who have experienced abuse in their lives, see:
J. Hightower & G. Smith ( 2000). Silent and Invisible; : What's age got to do with it? B.C. Yukon Society of Transition Houses. This is an information handbook for transition house workers, but very helpful for anyone working with older women. For publication information, see: www.bcysth.ca/publications/publications.htm
Also: Gender Aspects of Violence Against Older Persons. Background Paper for INSTRAW Discussion, April 15-16, 2002, by Jill Hightower. www.un-instraw.org/en/docs/ageing/Jill_Hightower_discussion_paper.pdf
B. Wolkenstein and L. Sterman (1998) "Unmet Needs of Older Women in a Clinic Population: The Discovery of Possible Long-Term Sequelae of Domestic Violence". Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Vol. 29, No. 4, 341-348.
"Carole Seaver talks about the Milwaukee Women's Center and its older battered women's program." Nexus, Vol. 1, Issue 3, October 1995. Online: www.preventelderabuse.org/nexus/seaver.html
Education Wife Assault. Newsletter on Older Woman Abuse. Has articles on several aspects of abuse of older women, including women survivors of multiple trauma; culture, abuse and older women; and abuse in the context of "caregiving". www.womanabuseprevention.com/html/elder_abuse/Gender_Violence.htm
The National Center on Elder Abuse offers a Clearinghouse on Abuse and Neglect of the Elderly (CANE). They prepared an Annotated Bibliography: Addressing the Needs of Older Battered Women, with Special Emphasis on Intimate Partner Violence (July 2003) which gives summaries/ abstracts of 51 publications written between 1996 and 2003. www.elderabusecenter.org/default.cfm?p=cane_obw.cfm
For further discussion of gender violence throughout a woman's life, health effects, and ways for health professionals to sensitively raise the issue with older women, see: Hightower, J. (March 2004) "Age, gender and violence: abuse against older women." Geriatrics and Aging, 7 (3), 60-63. Online at: www.geriatricsandaging.com/pdf/pdfMarch2004/0703violence.pdf
Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse.
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Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse ~~Réseau canadien pour la
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