The Older Battered Woman

Rosalie S. Wolf
Institute on Aging, University of Massachusetts, Memorial Health Care

Concern for the older battered woman emerged in the 1990s because of the failure of the existing systems of care to address their needs. The battered women's movement focused on younger persons with young children while adult protective services in most states were limited to dependent adults. For battered women in their 50s and older who were relatively functionally independent, help was not readily available or accessible.

Historically, because of adult protective services' emphasis on self-neglect and the elder abuse movement's preoccupation with caregiver stress, spouse abuse as a significant form of elder mistreatment was not fully acknowledged until the publication of a community survey that showed spouse abuse to be more prevalent than abuse by adult children. Similarly, except in isolated instances, battered women shelters did not reach out to older women, offered no educational programs dealing with abuse and aging, and provided no services for them.

Overwhelmed by the response to a request for stories from older battered women, the Women's Initiative, AARP in 1992 organized a forum that brought together workers in the domestic violence, elder abuse, and adult protective services movements and older victims to exchange information and to recommend how to better meet the needs of older women. The AARP efforts led to grants awarded by the Administration on Aging to six organizations to demonstrate a coordinated approach among the battered women shelters, adult protective services, and the aging network. The resulting projects of safe housing, advocacy, and criminal justice system action have become models for other communities throughout the country.

Today's older women, who have been in abusive situations for many years, face a number of difficulties that are not necessarily experienced by younger women.

    • grew up in an era when divorce was frowned upon
    • lack the skills to seek and find gainful employment
    • may have health/functional problems that restrict mobility
    • serve as the caregivers to abusive partners whom they feel they cannot leave because of a sense of loyalty, their marriage vows, and family solidarity
    • are being cared for by the abusive caregiver
    • may split family solidarity
    • have no independent source of income
    • have lost family members and friends through death
    • have been isolated from family members and friends
    • may antagonize children
    • lack a sense of self-worth
    • have no experience dealing with financial or legal matters
    • have become resigned to a pattern of living that has gone on for decades
    • are unable to realize that there may be choices

Consequently, leaving an abusive situation presents a number of barriers:

    • lack of opportunities for employment and economic self-sufficiency
    • loss of feelings of self-worth
    • loss of pension and financial rewards brought to the marriage by the partner
    • alienation of children's affection
    • loss of a caregiver
    • loss of a place that has been home for decades
    • fear of going into a nursing home as an alternative
    • transgression of marriage vows
    • long-term obligation to a sick partner

Other problems associated with the operation of battered women's shelters also discourage older women:

    • an environment with a higher noise and activity level than older people are generally accustomed to
    • work assignments unable to fulfill because of physical/mental conditions
    • a time limit on occupancy
    • staff unfamiliarity with aging and special needs of older persons
    • possible need for personal care assistance in activities of daily living
    • handicap inaccessibility

If an older women considers herself to be a victim of elder abuse, she has a number of options:

    • tell someone about the abuse
    • call the domestic violence hotline in her community
    • call the elder abuse hotline in the state
    • contact adult protective services
    • contact the police
    • go to a shelter

The domestic violence, adult protective services and aging programs are now working together and with other community groups to provide services to this group. One example are the support groups for older victims. They usually meet on a weekly basis, at a place convenient to transportation, have 3-10 persons in attendance, and use a paid leader. The purpose of the groups are to provide:

    • emotional support
    • an opportunity for sharing
    • education and information
    • safe environment
    • place to talk
    • linkage to other abused women
    • the means for developing coping skills, decision-making ability and personal growth
    • a way of shattering isolation

A few communities across the country have also established emergency shelters for older victims. These shelters serve as a safe haven while permanent housing arrangements are sought. They vary in size, sponsorship, and program. Average size is 7 beds with an average stay of 33 days. Most programs admit persons who can care for themselves. An array of services is available for clients including medical and psychiatric care but through arrangements with community agencies. The opportunity for sharing experiences and forming healthy relationships which is the hallmark of the battered women's shelters is generally lacking because of the limited numbers (some are one bed/apartment shelters), length of stay, and philosophy. One shelter with a 90 day stay period does sponsor a support group for residents; another will link the victim to a support group in the community.

In the past few years, domestic violence groups, adult protective service agencies, and aging programs have participated in cross-training so that each group is becoming knowledgeable about each other's approach to the issues and working together to meet the needs of this older group.

Additional information may be obtained from:

National Center on Elder Abuse
1225 I Street, NW Suite 725
Washington, DC 20005
Tel. 202 898-2578
Fax 2002 898-2593

National Clearinghouse Against Abuse in Later Life
Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence
307 S. Paterson Street, Suite #1
Madison, WI 53703
Tel. 608255-0539
FAX 608 255-3560

National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse
c/o Institute on Aging
UMass Memorial Health Care
119 Belmont Street
Worcester, MA 01605
Tel. 508 334-6166
FAX 508 334-6906

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