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Don't turn a blind eye to abuse in older people

A black and white picture of an older woman with her head in her hands

Helping the hidden

On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Age UK's Policy Manager for Equality and Human Rights, Emily McCarron, shares some recommendations for ways of improving the lives of older victims of domestic abuse.



Lockdown pressures are wearing many of us down, but consider the difficulties facing an older person experiencing domestic abuse during lockdown. Someone like Grace, who is 81 and has endured 57 years of physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse by her husband, George. George now has some care needs and Grace is likely to be caring for him alone.

The strain of caring without support or a break will be impacting her and her ability to ensure George is safe and following the guidance, and may create tension, which could lead to increased abusive behaviour.

The truth is no one really knows how Grace is coping during this period. After years of coercive control, she has no friends and limited contact with family. She doesn’t know how to use a computer, let alone access the internet for help.

Older women like Grace face significant barriers to accessing support during ‘normal’ times. This is particularly true for older survivors who have been subjected to prolonged abuse or are reliant on their abuser for money or care. If a family member or friend was concerned about Grace, even making a telephone call to her is difficult because, more often than not, George is there. As serious as this abuse is, many older women don’t even recognise what they have experienced as abuse, and consider abuse to be ‘something that happens to younger women'.

The attention on coronavirus’ impact on older people has focused on health risks, treatment in care homes, and isolation – not risks from abuse. But lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic may likely increase the risk of older people experiencing domestic abuse, despite misconceptions that those living with others are ‘fortunate’ and ‘safe.’

For Grace, the lockdown will be taking its toll. She is frightened about the virus and won’t leave the house to visit the local shops. Opportunities for professionals, such as the GP or hospital, to reach out to Grace are non-existent.

“We are receiving an increase in calls from concerned relatives, but we have had few contacts from older survivors,” says Carrie Bower, Safeguarding Manager at Age UK. “This is deeply concerning, as we suspect this is due to their limited opportunities to seek support rather than less prevalence of abuse.”

As today is World Elder Abuse Day, Age UK has three recommendations to improve the odds for older people like Grace:

1. We need to know how common cases of domestic abuse are in older people

We don’t have a clear picture of how prevalent the domestic abuse was before the pandemic. This is because the Crime Survey of England and Wales does not collect data on adults over 74. And we won’t know this unless the way the Government collects data on domestic abuse is improved. As a new Domestic Abuse Bill winds its way through Parliament, it should be changed to reflect data on domestic abuse being gathered for all ages, not just people up to the age of 74.

2. We need to be better support abuse victims

As lockdown measures ease, and GP and hospital appointments resume, health care practitioners, including GPs and practice nurses, need to be looking out for the needs of older people, particularly during hospital admission and discharge. Looking ahead, healthcare practitioners need better training to support older people experiencing domestic abuse.

3. We urgently need better funding for carers

There is a link between supporting older people experiencing domestic abuse and social care provision. In 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed older people across England about their experiences using support services to remain living independently in their own homes. Social care supports older people’s right to health and to live independently in the community. These supports can also change dependency structures, allowing for healthier, safer relationships.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the deep and systemic inadequacies of the current social care system and revealed the true extent of the impact underfunding has had on the system’s ability to respond and protect older people at a time of crisis. A comprehensive funding package for the social care system that meets the needs of older people and informal carers is urgently needed.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 999

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Last updated: Feb 22 2023

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