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We can't forget older women in conversations about sexual abuse

  • Older women have the lowest reported cases of sexual abuse, but are also the least likely to report.
  • Ageism, stigma, and lack of education are leading factors in older women's lack of reporting cases of sexual abuse. 
  • Now is the time to address elder sexual abuse to prevent cases and help survivors in their recovery. 
  • Catherine Morrison is a freelance writer based in Ottawa, Canada.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, young and middle-aged women feel more empowered than ever before to speak about their experiences of sexual abuse. But conversations about this issue tend to ignore a growing population — older women. 

Women above the age of 60 have the lowest reported cases of sexual abuse. But, that doesn't mean they don't experience sexual abuse. According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of sexual abuse in older victims is 0.9% in community settings and 1.9% in institutional settings. While these statistics may not seem alarming, a WHO study also found that only 1 in 24 cases of elder abuse is reported. 

There are a number of barriers older survivors of abuse — sexual violence in particular — face when reporting experiences of sexual abuse: namely, a lack of information about sexual assault, biases regarding older people's sexuality, and power dynamics. 

Additionally, the majority of sexual abuse of older women happens in residential care homes, where nine studies from six different countries found that 64% of staff in residential care homes perpetrated some form of elder abuse in 2019. It's time that we address the causes of elder sexual abuse to support survivors and better prevent the issue among a growing and vulnerable population. 

Why don't women in care homes report abuse?

Older women often don't report their experiences of sexual abuse because they don't have much education or information about the issue. These women most commonly don't acknowledge characteristics of violence or the resulting signs of physical and mental distress. Many women who experience trauma due to sexual assault relate their struggles to physical health rather than emotional trauma, leading them to keep their experiences of sexual abuse in the dark. 

Older women also face high levels of stigma regarding sexual abuse. Already, young and middle-aged women struggle to report sexual abuse for many reasons such as fear of encountering their abuser, fear of judgement from their friends and family, and fear of authority. When pairing this stigma with ageism, the stereotyping and/or discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age, it becomes almost impossible for older women to report incidences of abuse. Due to the belief that older women are not sexually attractive, and thus unable to be sexually assaulted, older women often don't feel that their reports of abuse will be acknowledged. So, they avoid reporting at all. 

Power dynamics also play a large part in the underreporting of sexual abuse in older women, especially those living in residential and care homes. Many women living in these homes are dependent on their caregivers, so when they are abused by staff members, they might not feel they should report someone they look to for care and affection. Survivors of sexual abuse with additional care needs, like physical and mental illnesses or mobility issues, are more even more disadvantaged because they're afraid of losing someone they rely on for survival.

The effects of sexual abuse on older women

When older women don't feel they can bring forward experiences of sexual assault, they often have to face traumatic consequences alone, especially during the pandemic while homes have strict restrictions on visitors. 

Older women who experience interpersonal violence report higher rates of psychiatric distress, often experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Because older women usually can't recognize these symptoms in themselves, it's much more difficult for them to recover from traumatic experiences. Women living alone without supportive networks, face even more emotional trauma, further limiting their recovery. Older women also face higher risks of physical injury following sexual abuse. These survivors usually get bruising and cuts, genital injuries, and broken bones, which creates or worsens their health conditions. 

When women in residential and care homes struggle in their recovery, they often have to depend on their caregivers even more than before they were abused, which can lead to re-traumatization as they continue to interact with the person who abused them. Without feeling capable of reporting incidents of sexual abuse, women in residential and care homes become stuck living in unhealthy mental, physical, and emotional environments.

How we can help

The number of women over 60 is only increasing, projected to more than double in size in the next 40 years. If we don't find solutions to prevent sexual abuse of older women and to help survivors report incidences, the cycle of mistreatment of elders will continue. 

The main causes of elder abuse in care homes are staff shortages and underpayment of staff, poor supervision from operators, and a lack of education of staff and volunteers. Residential and care homes need to hire more staff and volunteers who can work shorter, more focused shifts. Homes also need to start paying staff more and rely less on unpaid volunteers to create a better workspace that will benefit everyone. By addressing staff shortages and creating healthier work environments, staff will also be able to make better connections with residents and better notice signs of sexual abuse. 

Homes also need to educate their staff and volunteers on sexual abuse. If people working in homes can better notice signs of sexual abuse, they can better support older women who experience abuse. Even if they are not always able to prevent sexual assault, they can support survivors and help them in their recovery. Homes should encourage staff and volunteers to stay alert by regularly checking in them to ensure they continue to practice what they've learned about sexual abuse. 

Families of residents should make sure to do research on a care home before their family member moves in. Through speaking with other residents' families and facility managers about the steps they are taking to avoid elder abuse, families can get a sense of whether the home is safe or not. 

Once their loved one is in a home, families should educate themselves on signs of elder abuse. They should then frequently check in on elders by phone and in-person visits if possible. If you expect that a resident has been abused, it's important to alert authorities right away so caregivers and homes can be held accountable. 

It's also important that we, the public, work to prevent the issue of sexual abuse of older women in residential care homes. Through discussing this issue in our own family and friend groups and on social media, we can bring awareness and encourage more research on the issue. Take part in the prevention of elder abuse by supporting organizations like Elder Abuse and the USC Center on Elder Mistreatment. 

We must also work to tackle the stigma surrounding sexual abuse among older women. This will help survivors better recognize abusive behaviour and feel more comfortable to report their experiences. By educating ourselves and having discussions with others, we can normalize conversations about sexual abuse and create an environment that better supports survivors of sexual assault.

Catherine Morrison is a freelance writer based in Ottawa, Canada. In January 2021 she will be pursuing her Master of Journalism at Columbia University. Catherine is impassioned to use her voice to shed light on social issues with the hope of creating change.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit their website to receive confidential support.

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