How to Help an Older Adult Who May Be Suffering from Domestic Violence

By Shawna Reeves, Director of Elder Abuse Prevention

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As we reflect on the pain and trauma caused by domestic violence, Institute on Aging would like to make sure that older adults are not left out of this very important conversation.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” Domestic violence affects people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, ethnic backgrounds, religions and genders. An older person who is abused by an intimate partner may have suffered in silence for decades only to have the abuse discovered – or acknowledged – later in life. Some seniors may find themselves entering into new relationships that bring physical or emotional pain. Domestic violence can be financial as well; an increasing number of older adults are using online dating sites to find love, only to find economic ruin and heartbreak instead.

What can we do as a society to address domestic violence among older adults? 

First, we can listen without judgment. Domestic violence survivors are not timid or weak-willed, nor are they suffering from self-delusion. Just because a domestic violence survivor is an older adult, it does not mean they are suffering from dementia or do not understand the situation they are in. People remain in abusive relationships for many reasons, chief among them that it can be lethal to leave. In addition, a domestic violence survivor often relies economically or socially on an abuser. To leave the abuser could mean losing one’s home, access to food, or being cut off from friends and family.

Next, we can take steps to support the domestic violence survivor. In California, anyone who falls into the category of “mandated reporter,” which includes caregivers and health care workers, is legally required to report elder and dependent adult abuse. The list of mandated reporters is extensive; you can check to see if you are a mandated reporter here.  If you suspect an older adult you know is currently in an abusive relationship, and you are a mandated reporter, you must report the situation to Adult Protective Services (or, call 911 if the older adult is at imminent risk of harm). Those who are not mandated reporters can also make reports to Adult Protective Services. In addition, putting the older adult in touch with local domestic violence resources or the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be extremely helpful and empowering.

Fighting domestic violence against older adults is a community effort. In October, as well as all year round, Institute on Aging is with you in this fight.

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Institute on Aging

Committed to offering thoughtful discussions and resources to older adults, their families, and their caregivers.

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