Older women suffer family violence in silence

August 9, 2015
domestic violence blog

I’ll always remember Josie Jackson. She was 58 when she finally kicked her husband out. She’d suffered physical and emotional abuse through 39 years of marriage. Domestic violence is thought of as a crime against younger women. But for many, it doesn’t stop just because a woman turns 45. Josie Jackson can testify to that.

Since my return from an overseas holiday, I’ve taken note of the Royal Commission into Family Violence set up by the Victorian government. It’s an opportunity for older women to tell their stories, just as Josie told hers a few years ago.

“He didn’t mellow with age,” she told me, of the husband who was 66 when he was forced out. “But the kids were bigger so by the end it was less physical abuse and more emotional.”

Seven women aged in their mid 40s and 50s have died this year, allegedly at the hand of a partner, according to the Counting Dead Women Project run by Destroy the Joint, an online feminist collective. And six women aged in their 50s to 70s have died allegedly at the hands of another close family member. Younger women are at significantly greater risk, official statistics show. But police and health professionals may be less aware of the problem of violence in all its forms among older people than they should be.

“Where’s the evidence that violent men will mellow as they age?” said Ludo McFerran, who wrote The Disappearing Age, a report on older women and violence. For many women, she told me, violence is a continuum that runs throughout their life.

As they get older they become more vulnerable. They’re less likely to leave homes they’ve known for 30 years; they believe services such as refuges are geared to younger women and children. Shame and self-blame keep them trapped. “It’s much harder to change your life radically when you’re older,” Ludo said.

Older women can also come under pressure from police and family. An abuser can present as frail and unwell and kicking him out of the house can seem cruel. I’ve known adult children to beg their mother to take back an abusive spouse when he became sick.

Some older women are so accustomed to the verbal, emotional and physical abuse they’ve endured over decades, they fail to identify it for what it really is, Trish O’Donohue, chief executive of WISHIN, a Victorian information and referral service for women, told me. The abuse has become normalised. “They’ve learnt to manage it and work with it,” she said.

Other women have tried to leave earlier in the marriage but have been forced back home because services were inadequate and affordable housing non-existent. The Royal Commission heard of a woman that Seniors Rights Victoria had helped who’d experienced decades of abuse from her husband.

“She’d tried to leave more than 20 years ago but she was only able to access emergency accommodation for six weeks,” the organisation said in its submission to the commission. So she was forced to return home, and was so discouraged she didn’t try to leave again until her health began to fail and she feared for her life. The second escape attempt was successful with the help of a housing worker who found her permanent accommodation.

But what’s apparent from the submissions is that women can become vulnerable to abuse from a wider cast of characters as they age. Even if a once-violent husband is defanged by age or is dead, adult children and even grandchildren can emerge as abusers.

A submission by inTouch, a multicultural centre against family violence, reveals how increasing numbers of older migrants brought to Australia on a Contributory Aged Parent Visa to mind grandchildren, have been badly treated by their children and children-in-law on whom they’re totally dependent.

Financial abuse by adult children is most commonly recorded by the Seniors Rights Victoria helpline. It’s just ahead of emotional and psychological abuse. When people turn 60 we’ve come to call their mistreatment “elder abuse” but in its worst form it’s really another form of family violence. Elderly women are the most likely victims, and their sons the most common perpetrator, but vulnerable, elderly men are also robbed blind and treated appallingly by those who should care for them.

In one example cited, a woman was forced out of her own home by an abusive son who’d returned to live with her. He was aggressive and emotionally abusive, forcing his mother to share a bedroom with another person so he could have hers. Over a ten-month period he forced her to give him almost $20,000. She became so sick and stressed she left to live elsewhere, and it was only after legal action, a family violence intervention order, police and other help she was eventually able to reclaim her home.

Added to the well-known causes of family violence – gender inequality, the use and abuse of power within relationships, and so on –  the National Ageing Research Institute has added in its submission “ageist social attitudes that see older people as a burden.” Or as an ATM.

I’ve been writing about domestic violence on and off for more than 20 years. Let’s hope the Royal Commission makes a difference, services get decent funding, and older people are not forgotten.

What’s your experience of violence among older couples or from adult children? Please comment.

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