Domestic and sexual violence can happen to anyone, regardless of age. It is important to recognize that such abuse can happen to older adults, as this population is among our most vulnerable. If you or someone you love needs help, please do not hesitate to call us at 1-888-832-2272.
Domestic Violence in Later Life
Domestic, or intimate partner, violence is typically thought to be a problem for women of childbearing age. Unfortunately, little research has been done on the problem of domestic violence in later life. The bulk of the research has focused on elder abuse and neglect. Here’s what is known:
• Older females experience higher rates of abuse than older males, even after accounting for their larger proportion of the aging population. Although females make up about 57% of the total national elderly population, women are the victims in 76.3% of reports of emotional/psychological abuse, 71.4% of physical abuse, 63% of financial/material exploitation, and 60% of neglect.
• Research suggests that for functionally independent older women, physical and verbal abuse— mainly from intimate partners—is occurring at rates similar to that for younger women.
Risk factors for older adults
• Advanced age (older than 75)
• Functional dependency
• Shared living arrangements
• Social isolation
• Having a personality disorder
• Cognitive impairment
• Excessive use of drugs or alcohol
Barriers to seeking help
A victim may not seek help because of:
• Fear of further abuse, of alienation or loss of caregivers, of losing health benefits, of being placed in a nursing home, or of losing home and property
• Discouragement by caregivers for the victim to take action
• Reluctance to seek a divorce
• Lack of affordable housing options
In addition, the following factors may make it difficult for an elder domestic violence victim to leave the violent relationship:
• Compared with younger women, older women have more years invested in their families and
communities, and less opportunity for education or acquiring job skills
• Shame and embarrassment
• Non-recognition of abuse; most older victims came of age during a time when education and
independence were not encouraged for women
• Apathy and belief that nothing can change based on a lack of support from the community or
family in the early years of the abuse
• Identification with traditional roles, including holding the family together
• Diminishing health and vigor
• Realities of physical aging and issues of loneliness
Elder Sexual Assault
Elder sexual assault occurs when a person over the age of 60 is forced, tricked, coerced, or manipulated into ANY unwanted sexual contact. It also includes sexual contact with anyone who is unable to give informed consent. Unfortunately, some older persons are a prime target due to their decreased functioning and/or reliance on caretakers, which makes them less likely to report, fight back, or be believed.
Sexual abuse is believed to be the least reported of all victimizations against the elderly. Only 30% of people age 65 or older who are victimized report the sexual assault to the police.
Who sexually assaults older adults?
Unfortunately, in cases of elder sexual assault, an offender is often someone who is well-known to the victim—someone the victim trusts or depends on. Older adult sexual assault perpetrators can include:
• Caregivers: aides, nurses, volunteers, etc. They may take advantage of their positions of authority to gain access to victims.
• Adult children: predominantly male family members such as sons, grandsons, and nephews.
• Spouses/partners: older individuals may believe that rape cannot happen within the vows of marriage.
• Fellow facility residents: others living in the same assisted living facility, nursing home, or
In 1/3 of cases, acts of sexual abuse toward elders were witnessed by others.
Risk factors for older adults
Physical weakness and frailty make older adults more vulnerable.Some older adults have declining cognitive function making it difficult to communicate the details of an assault. Dependence on others for daily living makes it impossible for some older adults to leave an uncomfortable situation.
How is elder sexual assault different?
Older victims of sexual assault are at a much higher risk for the following injuries:
• Increased vaginal tearing
• Pelvic injury
• Soft tissue or bone injury
Older adults may also experience these long-term effects:
• Extreme agitation
• Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
• Panic attacks
• Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) (due to lack of treatment)
• Exacerbation of existing illnesses
• Sleep disturbances such as insomnia
• Longer recovery times
What are the signs?
Because older adults may be unable to communicate verbally or express details of an assault, it is sometimes up to friends, caregivers, and family members to recognize the signs of sexual abuse. Please understand that not all of the symptoms listed below will always point to sexual assault; however, a combination of these over a period of time, or a sudden appearance of one or more, may strongly indicate abuse.
• Bruising on inner thighs
• Vaginal bleeding
• Difficulty in walking or standing
• Pain or itching in genital areas
• Sudden exacerbation of existing illnesses
• Frequent physical problems such as headaches, allergies, or stomach problems
• Depression or anxiety
• Withdrawal or fearfulness
• Suicide attempts
• Increased anger or hostility
Adapted from the brochure, "Elder Sexual Assault," developed and distributed by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
For more resources on elder abuse, please click here.
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