Domestic violence tends to be considered as a younger persons’ problem. The majority of adverts and campaigns focus on issues affecting younger people – and they often use younger models to increase awareness of domestic violence. But evidence is emerging that violence against women doesn’t stop as they grow older: it’s just less visible.
Counting Dead Women, a study by the chief executive of London-based domestic violence charity nia Karen Ingala Smith, has revealed that the majority of women killed by men’s violence in 2013 were over the age of 40. And the victims of two suspected domestic homicides last week were both women over the age of 45.
Yet it is difficult to get any real idea of the prevalence of domestic violence in middle age and later life, because of the lack of studies attempting to capture this data. The main source of information on domestic violence is the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which – among other flaws – has an upper age limit of 59 years for its questions on domestic violence. I have aimed to address this lack of information in my research.
The longevity of violence
Domestic violence against women in middle age and later life occurs in two main contexts. The first is late-onset domestic violence, which begins for the first time in later life, either in a new or existing relationship. The second is domestic violence “grown old”, where women have experienced domestic violence throughout a relationship lasting into their later years. Existing studies indicate that the latter category – domestic violence “grown old” – is the most common. Both contexts can involve a range of behaviours, including financial, emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
In my research, the severity of physical abuse often declined as both the victim and perpetrator aged, however emotional and sexual violence continued. Several women commented that they had experienced physical violence previously in their relationship, however the perpetrators no longer needed to use physical violence to control them. Instead, the threat of violence and the emotional abuse was enough to intimidate and manipulate these women.
When abusive relationships last for long periods of time, it compounds the issues that make it difficult for the women to leave. For one thing, older women may come from generations where women were less likely to work and have financial independence. For another, generational norms and values – particularly for women over 50 – often mean that women believe violence is a normal part of a relationship and that such matters should be kept private and within the family.
The shame of experiencing violence is often deeply embedded – and many women blame themselves for the abuse: for not being a good wife, or for expecting too much from their husbands. Having a nice home and a good job can also prevent women from leaving violent relationships. Compared to younger women, older women are more likely to have lived in their home for several years and have accumulated possessions which are difficult to leave behind.
Once a woman becomes a grandmother and her role includes caring for grandchildren this also makes it difficult to leave an abusive relationship because of issues such as feeling responsible for providing childcare or concern about granddad being seen as an abuser. Many of these issues are used as coercive methods by the perpetrator – the threat of losing the home and years of possessions, or the fear of not seeing the grandchildren again both came up in the study.
The damaging effects of domestic violence have been well documented. But research suggests that women in middle age to later life may be more likely to use alcohol as a way of coping, compared to younger age groups. And older women can be more likely to suffer severe physical injuries than younger women; injuries that can be exacerbated by pre-existing health conditions linked to age, such as arthritis, diabetes or osteoporosis.
There is also evidence that older women are more likely to have a range of mental health problems. Although mental health problems are often seen in younger groups, they are likely to be exacerbated by the lasting abuse experienced by older women.
When it comes to providing support for the victims of domestic abuse, some needs are broadly similar across age groups – for instance, the need for secure housing and financial support. But the issues caused by physical and mental health conditions and alcohol or drug misuse are often magnified for older women. They are less likely to report violence and more likely to need a range of support services including long-term counselling, help with alcohol or drugs and assistance with finances – many women may not have worked, or had any access to money.
There are other differences too – years of abuse can erode women’s confidence and they may find it difficult to join in group sessions, particularly when the other women are younger. Depending on their age, accommodation in refuges – which is often based around the needs of women with children – may not be appropriate, due to older women’s difficulties with stairs, for example, or because conditions are too loud. This is made worse by a general lack of awareness that domestic violence affects all age groups and a lack of specific support for older victims. Many of the women I asked said they were either unaware of support services for domestic abuse victims or thought they were only for younger women.
But recognition of the fact that middle-aged and older women are experiencing domestic violence, and have different needs to younger women, is growing. The first refuge specifically for women over the age of 45 opened recently in Teeside in north-east England last week, as a part of Eva Women’s Aid. This is an important first step towards responding to the needs of older survivors – but we must continue to raise awareness about domestic violence directed against older women, and address the gaps in support.