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.