Seniors facing intimate partner violence: At the crossroads of sexism and ageism

Shirley married Kenny when she was 20 years old. She was surprised when he noticed her and asked her out. He was outgoing and popular; she was quiet and shy. He had big dreams for their life together. Kenny liked the house kept clean and meals on the table promptly at 6 p.m. In 1949, when Shirley got married, her job was to stay at home and take care of the house, as all her friends did. But keeping things perfect was harder when she got pregnant. She didn’t feel good, and one night dinner wasn’t ready on time. Kenny was furious. He threw the dishes across the kitchen and pushed her to the floor and kicked her. That night was the beginning of fifty years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Kenny was insistent that his needs should be met before those of Shirley or the children. Shirley became more and more afraid to visit friends or family. Soon, she did not have many people in her life other than Kenny and her children. Last year Shirley had a stroke. She now lives at home with Kenny and receives some home health assistance. On one occasion, a home health nurse heard Kenny screaming at her and later found bruises on her arms, back, and thighs. The nurse called social services to do an investigation (Brandl, 2000, p39).

Introduction

The vast field of research on IPV still lags when it comes to exploring the prevalence of IPV amongst older women. Rates of intimate partner abuse and violence amongst older women are underestimated and much less attention is paid to IPV among older women as compared to IPV amongst younger, childbearing cohorts. The causes of this knowledge gap and the related practice implications are explored in this post.

Latent biases in research, policy, and practice around seniors and IPV

To some extent, it is possible that methodological gaps impede the collection of data about IPV experienced by older women. For example, telephone, cellphone and email surveys may find little uptake when persons in those populations are unable to access or use those technologies. Researchers need to come up with better and more innovative methods to reach and engage older cohorts to get them to speak of their experiences.

The available reports and meta-analyses also indicate that some of the lack of understanding of IPV amongst older cohorts is related to varying definitions and understanding of violence experienced by seniors. These diverse definitions are the outcome of diverse and non-intersectional approaches to the problem. For example, there may be a focus on IPV but not on the implications of age of sufferers and perpetrators – e.g. considering if or how experience of IPV exacerbates age-related cognitive dysfunction that can also make it hard for the victim to disclose the abuse.  Or there may be a focus on age-related vulnerability to violence (caregiver abuse) but not on the role of gender relations in intimate relationships.

A focus on IPV without considering age contains a latent ageism. A focus on age  but not gender in the experience of abuse has a latent sexism. Senior women living with IPV are caught at the crossroads of these two forms of bias in research, policy and service approaches.

Problem set 1: Examining IPV without reference to age

When IPV without reference to age is the focus of policy, research and services, there is a tendency to see violence and its experience and effects as experienced in the same way by women regardless of age. Another tendency is to see IPV as something suffered in the younger years and diminishing with age.  These points of view are ill conceived.

Misconception: Wife abuse stops at age 60. Reality: The majority of domestic violence abuses against older women involve their older male partners as perpetrators. While surveys show that reported cases of wife abuse declines with age, some researchers suggest that a senior abuser may escalate his abusive behaviour after retirement when feelings of isolation add to his sense of a lack of self-worth. (Edwards, 2009. p14. Emphases added)

Older women can experience IPV in several different contexts, including in a longstanding relationship, beginning in a relationship after some time, in a new relationship, or across several relationships (Beaulaurier et al., 2008; Hightower et al., 2006; Straka & Montminy, 2006; Zinc, Jacobson, Regan, Fisher, & Pabst, 2006). In relationships in which IPV develops over time, changes and uncertain factors, such as health status or other events associated with aging, can create new relationship dynamics (Beaulaurier et al., 2008). For example, some men become more controlling after retirement (Hightower et al., 2006; Montminy, 2005). Also, women who experience abuse throughout a long-term relationship sometimes report a shift from physical to emotional and financial abuse over time (Zink, Jacobson, Regan, et al., 2006). The mean duration of IPV is 14.5 years for women aged 45 and older, compared to 2.6 years for women aged 18–29 (Bonomi et al., 2007; Montminy, 2005; Wilke & Vinton, 2005). (Weeks & LeBlanc, 2011, p285)

Problem set 2: Examining violence by and towards seniors without reference to gender

There are also problems from the focus on age-related vulnerability to abuse without reference to gender dynamics in intimate relationships (including relationships of care giving). A common assumption that the caregiver is in a position of power and therefore less at risk of suffering violence. This assumption does not consider that caregiving is deeply gendered and structured by power and control inequalities. Women who are caregivers to violent partners do not cease to suffer abuse just because the partner is physically dependent on them. As in this video

Take the converse situation: where the caregiver is an abusive intimate partner (as in the case of ‘Shirley and Kenny’, Brandl (2000) p1). Here too, the lack of attention to gender roles in care relationships sustains the misconception that abuse of the dependent elder is primarily the result of caregiving stress (rather than also influenced by gender dynamics). The view that caregiver stress is the prime or sole factor in elder abuse is a victim blaming approach. It cloaks the brutal reality of IPV suffered by older dependent spouses. More to the point, this focus on caregiver stress results in the service provider enabling abuse. Abusers gain a socially acceptable excuse for their behaviour (e.g., ‘I really love her and I wouldn’t be so stressed out and act up if only she would just …’).

The focus on caregiver stress becomes one more way for the abuser to evade accountability for behaviour that is patterned and systematic. Such abuse is NOT sporadic loss of control and calm. Brandl (2000) suggests that the focus on caregiver stress results in the misdirection of service efforts, harms to victims, and worst of all, the unwitting ‘collusion’ of the service provider with the abuser. Instead, in cases such as that of ‘Shirley and Kenny,’ the service provider should be alert to the possibility of abuse, try and speak with the victim in private, and look for injuries in non-obvious places such as back and stomach, not on the face and arms which abusers are usually clever enough to avoid. The alternative scenarios are profoundly ugly, as the following excerpt about ‘Shirley and Kenny’  suggests (Brandl, 2000, p41-42).

The social worker arrives at Kenny and Shirley’s home. Shirley is asleep. The worker talks to Kenny. Kenny tells the worker that Shirley is the center of his universe. But since the stroke, things have been more difficult. Shirley can’t take care of the house, herself, or him anymore. She bruises very easily when he tries to help move her. Maybe he was a little too rough last Friday. He assures the worker it will never happen again because he loves his wife. The worker doesn’t need to bother to come back. Everything will be fine.

This worker has read about and been trained on the dynamics of elder abuse. She believes the primary cause of elder abuse is caregiver stress. This case seems to her to be a classic example. Kenny describes one incident of abuse—an episode rather than a pattern. Kenny also seems genuinely concerned about his wife. He expresses his love and promises not to hurt her again.

The worker talks more with Kenny about how difficult his life must have become since his wife’s stroke. Yes, providing care can be challenging and not always rewarding. The worker suggests several strategies that can help reduce Kenny’s stress level. She will arrange for home health services and chore services to come in periodically to give Kenny a break. She also encourages Kenny to contact her any time he is feeling overwhelmed. The worker believes that reducing Kenny’s stress will end the abusive behavior.

After the worker leaves, Kenny wakes Shirley up and screams at her: “You told someone about me and now the government is poking their nose in our business. But I fixed it. I told the social worker that you are the problem. You are so difficult to care for, and she agrees with me. If you would just do what I say, I wouldn’t have to hit you.”

Shirley is terrified. She doesn’t know who made the call to the social worker, but she vows to be even more careful about whom she sees and what she says. Certainly, she will support Kenny’s version to the social worker. She doesn’t want to get into any more trouble with him. (Brandl, 2000, p41-42)

IPV, senior women, and the post-migration context

As with younger cohorts of immigrant women, there is a lack of robust quantitative data about violence experienced by senior immigrant women. Nevertheless, the qualitative data is fairly rich, albeit disquieting.

Guruge et al (2010) provide valuable qualitative data on the intersection of immigration, diasporic upheaval, and violence endured by senior South Asian (Tamil) women in the Greater Toronto Area. Guruge and colleagues report that in the post-migration context, older women suffer the result of increased social, linguistic, economic and sponsorship-related dependency on their husbands, adult children and children-in-law. Diverse forms of abuse (emotional,  physical,  sexual,  and  financial)  are associated with such dependency.

As with younger women, senior women find it a steep challenge to leave the situation of violence. Several factors combine to lock the women into the situation. Guruge et al (2010) describe something of particular relevance to this website’s exploration of multiple-perpetrator violence. Adult children, children-in-law, grandchildren and even unrelated community members exert pressure on sufferers to stay silent and not disrupt social and family ‘harmony’ by disclosing their situation and seeking out external supports.

An older Tamil woman participating in Guruge’s (2007) study on IPV spoke about additional harassment that she experienced from her adult children, who wanted the woman to return to her husband (the children’s father). Our previous work (Guruge, 2007; Hyman et al., 2006) also showed that older women are more vulnerable to such control when they become widows or leave their abusive husbands since their social status is often tied to that of their husbands. (Guruge et al., 2010).

In addition, senior immigrant women face barriers such as lack of suitable public transport (crucial for seniors with physical difficulties and especially in the harsh Canadian winter) and the linguistic and social unfamiliarity of the Canadian service environment. An ageist job market offers few opportunities of gainful employment to seniors struggling with cognitive and physical debility. The overall effect is to lock women into their situation of dependence on abusers.

Conclusion

The relatively limited approaches described above, with their latent ageism and sexism,  attest to yawning gaps between the fields of research, policy and practice on elder abuse and domestic/family (or intimate partner) violence. Experts from these two fields need to collaborate more to bridge these gaps.

The policy and research silences around seniors facing IPV are compounded by the fact that older women are often strongly socialized in maintaining family and marriage and not rocking the boat by reporting violence. Consider the following scenario that poignantly illustrates how senior women are unable to disclose their lengthy experience of living with IPV.

Mabel (age 68) is a frequent user of the health care system and has a thick file. She has been in and out of the hospital with various vague complaints of headaches, chest pains, and stomach problems. She has also received inpatient and outpatient mental health services over the years. She has experienced anxiety attacks and depression, which do not improve with medication and/or therapy. Mabel never shares with health care providers that her husband has been physically abusive and extremely controlling throughout their 50-year marriage. (Spangler & Brandl, B. (2007) p1).

Finally, older women may access anti-violence services even less than younger women. And even when seniors do access these services, there remains the question – how included do they feel in service environments that are more attuned to the needs of younger survivors? For example, it can be asked whether mutual support groups, language classes and conversation circles are sufficiently inclusive of older women, their perspectives, needs, interests, learning curves etc?

Useful readings

Band-Winterstein, T., & Eisikovits, Z. (2009). “Aging out” of violence: The multiple faces of intimate violence over the life span. Qualitative Health Research, 19(2), 164-180. Link

Brandl, B (2000). Power and control: Understanding domestic abuse in later life. Generations, 24(2), 39. Link

Brandl, B, Davis J (2016). Abuse in Later Life: An Overview and Practical Strategies for Supporting Older Victims of Abuse.

Brownell, P. (2015). Neglect, abuse and violence against older women: Definitions and research frameworks. South eastern European journal of public health, 1(1).

Division for Social Policy and Development Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations (2013) Neglect, Abuse and Violence Against Older Women, 2013. Link.

Edwards, P. April 21, 2009. Elder Abuse in Canada A Gender-Based Analysis.  Public Health Agency of Canada. Link.

Guruge, S., Kanthasamy, P., Jokarasa, J., Yi Wai Wan, T., Chinichian, M., Shirpak, K. R., … & Sathananthan, S. S. (2010). Older Women Speak About Abuse & Neglect in the Post-migration Context. Women’s Health & Urban Life, 9(2). Link

Spangler, D., & Brandl, B. (2007). Abuse in later life: Power and control dynamics and a victim-centered response. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 12(6), 322-331. Link

Shim, W. S., & Nelson-Becker, H. (2009). Korean older intimate partner violence survivors in North America: Cultural considerations and practice recommendations. Journal of women & aging, 21(3), 213-228. Link

Straka, S. M., & Montminy, L. (2006). Responding to the needs of older women experiencing domestic violence. Violence against women, 12(3), 251-267. Link

Walsh, C. A., Ploeg, J., Lohfeld, L., Horne, J., MacMillan, H., & Lai, D. (2007). Violence across the lifespan: Interconnections among forms of abuse as described by marginalized Canadian elders and their care-givers. British Journal of Social Work, 37(3), 491-514. Link

Weeks, L. E., & LeBlanc, K. (2011). An ecological synthesis of research on older women’s experiences of intimate partner violence. Journal of women & aging, 23(4), 283-304. DOI: 10.1080/08952841.2011.611043.

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