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September 20, 2023

The Invisible Survivors of Domestic Violence

John Holt

The PDF in which this article appears can be found at BIFOCAL Vol. 45, Issue 1. 

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a designation created in 1987 to show support for those affected by intimate partner violence and to reflect on the broader impact of domestic violence on individuals, families, and communities in the United States.

More than thirty-five years later, our perception of domestic violence still reflects our own biases and stereotypes. Domestic violence transcends age, gender, disability, and sexual orientation, affecting a wide spectrum of relationships. While society has made strides in addressing biases like sexism, racism, and anti-LGBTQ ideologies, one form of discrimination persists: ageism.

Ageism, characterized by stereotypes and prejudices against older adults, distorts our understanding of the types of relationships they maintain and hinders the effectiveness of reporting and response systems for domestic violence. Domestic violence against older adults constitutes a unique form of elder abuse, with distinct dynamics and manifestations that require specific understanding and support.

Elder abuse within an intimate partnership can be an extension of a lifetime of domestic violence and trauma. However, changes in an older person's functional abilities, social environment, and financial situation introduce new risk factors and barriers to seeking help. Physical and cognitive decline can lead to increased dependence on those causing harm and reduced ability to identify and report abuse. Isolation, caused by shrinking social circles, as well as by elements of our social infrastructure like transportation which are not easily accessible to older adults, further conceal abuse. Older adults may find it challenging to leave long-term relationships or envision a different future for themselves outside of an abusive partnership. Financial constraints can limit their options for escape, unlike younger adults who can enter the workforce and thereby more easily access market-rate housing.

Take the case of Carol, a 78 year old woman living with her husband, who subjected her to threats of violence and death and has been physically abusing her. Isolated from her friends and family, physically dependent on her husband to assist with her medical needs, and living on a modest monthly social security payout, she lacked the means and support to leave her home, instead enduring this abuse for years. It was only when she found herself alone at a routine medical appointment that she had the courage to disclose what she was experiencing to a social worker.

Addressing domestic violence against older adults requires tailored and targeted responses and programs. The Weinberg Center for Elder Justice at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale offers a model for such interventions. Located within the Hebrew Home by Riverspring Living, a continuum of care community, the Weinberg Center is the first elder abuse shelter in the country, and provides legal, social, and therapeutic services tailored to the complex needs of older adults, who often have complex medical needs which make it difficult to access domestic violence and homeless shelters. This evidence-based program operates as a trauma-informed medical-legal partnership, recognizing how physical and cognitive decline can obscure signs of abuse and inhibit reporting.

Founded with support from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in 2005, the Weinberg Center has and is committed to continuing to assist more than twenty-five organizations in fifteen states in establishing and maintaining elder abuse shelters based on its successful model. The Weinberg Center for Elder Justice, alone has also provided shelter for 218,982 days to older adults who have experienced abuse.

Carol, the 78 year old woman described above, was almost one of those clients. Her medical provider took her to the hospital, where she was referred to the Weinberg Center. There she might have received medical care and rehabilitation services, alongside therapeutic counseling. Simultaneously, professionals planned to help her navigate the criminal justice system. Instead, Carol discharged herself from the hospital and returned home to her husband. Unlike a younger person, there was no hope of finding her at her job or her children’s school. She had effectively disappeared from view again.

This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it is crucial to acknowledge the unique needs of older adults like Carol. Awareness is essential but insufficient to prevent harm, especially when systemic barriers and societal attitudes obstruct our comprehension of the problem's scope and impact. To bring about lasting change, the United States needs the political will to invest public funds in innovative programs, rigorously evaluate their effectiveness, and replicate successful interventions.

Two pending federal legislations—the Reauthorization of the Older Americans Act and the Elder Justice Reauthorization and Modernization Act—could provide significant funding to state agencies on aging. These funds could be used to gather better data on elder abuse, address risk factors like isolation, train professionals and ombudspersons to recognize the unique manifestations of elder abuse, and support innovative programs like elder abuse shelters. If you or anyone you know is experiencing elder abuse, please ask for help. If you are interested in a training on the different kinds of elder abuse, or in starting a shelter in your community contact us at: [email protected].

John Holt

Senior Staff Attorney on behalf of The Weinberg Center for Elder Justice at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale

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