World Elder Abuse Day 2021: Transforming the domestic abuse response for older people

Find out how we’re working with partners to promote awareness of domestic abuse in later life

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day was launched by the International Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organisation in 2006. On 15th June 2021 people will unite on a global level to raise awareness of abuse, neglect, and exploitation of older people.

SafeLives, Dewis Choice, Age UK, Galop and Age Cymru are working in collaboration to promote an awareness of domestic abuse in later life. We are calling on practitioners and organisations to improve their responses to older victims. Our work in research, practice and at policy levels tells us we need to be transformative in how we identify domestic abuse, how we understand the unique barriers older people face and how we become age-responsive when tackling domestic abuse experienced at this stage in the life course.

Impact of Covid-19

Covid-19 has highlighted the discriminatory age-based policies and practices that have undermined older people’s equal enjoyment of human rights. In addition, the pandemic has led to an increased general awareness of domestic abuse. But there’s a crucial piece of the puzzle missing – recognising where domestic abuse intersects with age and the specific challenges that brings.

Older people’s heightened vulnerability to the virus resulted in extended periods of isolation or even shielding for a significant proportion of older people. This isolation provided abusers with opportunities to exercise further coercive and controlling behaviours, and cause physical, sexual, economic, emotional harm and abuse. During the pandemic, older people, especially those with health conditions that made them vulnerable to the virus gave rise to opportunities where they were increasingly dependent on intimate partners or family members for their basic needs, care, and support. For some although not all an unfamiliarity with technology or digital poverty may have shut off remaining avenues to seek support from positive social networks or formal services. In fact, we all have a collective responsibility to those still experiencing domestic abuse, whatever stage of the life course.

We have put together key areas that practitioners and organisations should be focusing on to transform the response to older victims of domestic abuse.

Recognising domestic abuse in later life

When it comes to experiencing domestic abuse, older people are routinely overlooked, described as ‘hidden’ victims. Older people are often invisible in public campaigns relating to domestic abuse, this makes it harder for older people to identify themselves as victims and practitioners to identify victims. When older people are included, they are presented as one homogenous group with shared values, beliefs, and attitudes. The imagery and language fail to capture diversity in later life, particularly older males, LGBTQ+ people, Black, Asian and racially minoritised people and refugees.

Typically, domestic abuse is understood as a problem that occurs amongst (ex)/intimate partners. This is reflected in awareness-raising campaigns and marketing. Domestic abuse perpetrated by adult family members is often under recognised and overlooked potentially masked as care-giver stress. Data from SafeLives and Dewis Choice, however, found that people aged 61 years and over were more likely to experience abuse by a family member than they were from a current intimate partner. A finding that is also reflected in domestic homicides.1 In practice, this means older victims who experience domestic abuse from adult family members such as siblings, adult children and grandchildren are overlooked and do not get access to specialist domestic abuse support.

The lack of recognition is deeply troubling, given that older people aged 60 years and over are also more likely to experience abuse from a current intimate partner than their younger counterparts.2 Furthermore, longitudinal research by Dewis Choice3 capturing the lived experiences of older victim-survivors suggests that in many cases the abuse escalated in frequency and severity with an increase in age. Domestic homicide reviews involving older people shows these signs of escalation are missed by practitioners.

Dewis Choice has called on Welsh Government to urge them to make changes to awareness-raising campaigns. To bring about real, positive change this needs to be a collective effort and organisations across England and Wales need to ensure their service marketing materials to reflect people of all ages, ethnicities, sexualities.

Unique barriers to accessing help and support in later life

Older people are less likely than any other age group to seek help from statutory or specialist domestic abuse services.4 Of the older adults that are visible to services, a quarter report having lived with abuse for more than 20 years and the data shows they are more likely than younger victims to be living with the perpetrator after accessing support.5 This means leaving a home, business or community can be an extremely challenging barrier.

There are multiple obstacles older people face when accessing help and support, which are often compounded by a generational norm of keeping abuse ‘private’.6 Some older people believe that domestic abuse is best ‘kept behind closed doors and that marriages are ‘till death do us part.’ These deeply ingrained notions make self-referrals even more challenging. Furthermore, some older victims report feeling they were not worthy of support and that resources should be directed at younger women with children. These sentiments underscore a generally dismissive attitude to older people in society which can sadly be internalised.

For Black, Asian and racially minoritised groups there may be additional pressures of cultural or religious expectations as well. SafeLives research found LGBT+ victims are twice as likely to have experienced historic abuse by a family member.7 Dewis Choice research with older LGBTQ+ victims identified several barriers to accessing formal help and support. Older LGBT people are more likely to be isolated from informal and formal networks when compared to cisgender and heterosexual people (Stonewall, 2011), which limits opportunities for disclosure. In addition, they are more likely to hide their gender or sexuality due to fear of discriminatory treatment, which means for older LGBT+ people to disclose the abuse also means they must disclose their gender or sexuality. A lack of professional curiosity and heteronormative assumptions by practitioners further hinders this problem.

Although there are individual-level barriers older people face such as low self-esteem, shame, self-blame and lack of confidence, research from Dewis Choice found that older people’s help-seeking was hindered more by inadequate service responses and policy provision. Often practitioners act on behalf of older people, limit older people’s decision-making and their access to justice which affected their human rights and entitlements.8 Services need to adopt a person-centred, strength-based and trauma-informed response to victims that is responsive to the diverse needs of older people.

Recording and monitoring older victims of domestic abuse

The ‘invisibility’ – or our failure to see – older victims of domestic abuse takes different forms. In many cases, older victims have been excluded from important data sets.  For example, until 2017, the Crime Survey for England and Wales only recorded domestic abuse victimisation up to the age of 59. Similarly, data recorded by MARACs (Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences), the nationally adopted response to victims assessed as high-risk of serious harm and domestic homicide, does not include people aged 65 years or over.  The exclusion of older victims of domestic abuse in research often results in underdeveloped policy and service provision.

Successful campaigning by Age UK “no age limit” means that Office of National Statistics data will now be collected on all victims of domestic abuse whatever their age. This is the first step in the right direction to ensure accurate data is collected and older voices are heard. This now needs to be echoed in organisational practices that too often fail to appropriately record domestic abuse in later life, particularly when abuse was perpetrated by a family member.9 The failure to record and monitor the experience of older victims has serious ramifications. If people aged 60 years and over are invisible in data sets, they can become invisible to professionals and services. After all, you can’t look for or respond to something you don’t know is there.

Organisations need to be monitoring demographic information that truly reflects their service users. For example, organisations should be asking themselves: are we asking the right questions? Are we considering situations where there are multiple victims and/or perpetrators? Are we asking for pronouns? Are we making sure we capture people’s sexual orientation, gender identity and transgender status? This information is crucial to providing a wraparound support service that is service user led.

Inadequate service provision

The invisibility of older victims has led to a lack of domestic abuse service provision specific to meet older people’s needs.  Additionally, refuges report a lack of accommodation with accessibility for those with physical disabilities and care and support needs. The limited services available are often unsuitable to meet older people’s specific needs and professionals are missing opportunities to offer support.

In 2016, SafeLives carried out research into the experiences of older victims as part of our Spotlights series, which attempted to better understand some of society’s most hidden victims. An IDVA (Independent Domestic Violence Advocate) with specialist experience in working with older victims reported, “sometimes professionals [social workers and doctors] only see medical conditions with older people and they’re […] not trained to see domestic abuse”. The IDVA suggested that medical issues that were directly linked to the physical and traumatic effects of domestic abuse, such as arthritis, diabetes, hearing loss and mental health concerns, routinely went undetected by medical staff as signs of abuse.  This is particularly concerning given that older people are significantly more likely to have a disability and research has evidenced that the likelihood of being a victim of domestic abuse is twice as high for people with a disability.

Concluding remarks

Currently, the system only works to keep older victims hidden. Research points to the fact that older people are at increased risk but they are less likely to seek help. Their vulnerability is compounded by a lack of suitable imagery, agencies and professionals’ unable to recognise signs, monitor data and offer appropriate support. And because they are not ‘seen’, services are not designed to support their needs. Therefore, even if they do seek help, they can’t find the right support.

Dewis Choice are offering free online training to equip practitioners with the necessary knowledge to respond to older victims of domestic abuse.

SafeLives also offer a four day accredited course, Domestic abuse – responding to older people, which was developed with input from Dewis Choice.

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