Making Change Spring 2004, Volume 6, Number 1

By Lynn Ingrid Nelson

Seniors and domestic violence:

Social service providers must reach out to help growing senior population



My husband and I have lived together for almost 40 years – for most of them, I have lived in constant fear. My husband is verbally abusive, hits me, steals my medication, and even rapes me. He threatens to kill me and threatens to kill himself if I leave. The abuse is harder to bear now that I'm older. I don't know where I could go or how I could survive if I were to leave my husband.

“I've tried to tell my pastor, but he said there was no way someone like my husband could do the things I said he did. I tried to tell my children, and they accused me of being mean to their dad and wanting to break up the family.”

The above story is a fictionalized account of an 80-year-old woman’s life, based on a compilation of true experiences.

Scope of the problem

Today, almost 35 million people in the United States are over 65, according to Dr. Linner Griffin, an IDVAAC Steering Committee member and professor and educational director of the Center on Aging at East Carolina University at Greenville, N.C. African Americans comprise 12.5 percent of the total – the largest aging minority population, followed by Hispanics. By the year 2030, more than 20 percent of the total U.S. population will be over 65. And over half will be 50 years old and older.

“These numbers are very scary,” says Griffin. “Because we aren’t prepared to provide services to these people. The natural inclination of younger people is to think of older people as ‘them’. We need to advocate today for the services we’ll need tomorrow.”

There are no definite numbers on the prevalence of elder abuse in this country, according to Griffin. “There are 5 million documented cases each year, but the real number is probably five times higher. No one really knows for sure.”

Because of the vulnerability of some older people due to diminishing physical and/or mental capacity, the categories of elder abuse is broad. Most of it occurs in a home setting, according to Griffin, because institutions are more proactive in preventing it through sensitivity training, monitoring, and aide turnover, which leads to lower levels of frustration and abuse by caregivers. Elder abuse encompasses harm by caregivers in the form of physical, sexual, financial, emotional abuse, or neglect.

Alice Lynch, executive director of BIHA (Black, Indian, Hispanic and Asian Women in Action) in Minneapolis, has seen these situations first-hand. Since she is a well-known resource in her community, she got a call from a senior citizen residence about a 80-year-old resident who didn’t appear to be getting enough to eat. Lynch met with the senior female and found out that the woman’s daughter was withholding her SSI funds from her. Lynch arranged to get the senior a checking account, connected her with local agencies that serve seniors, including Meals on Wheels, and programmed some resource numbers into her phone.

“The woman was worried about losing her relationship with her daughter,” says Lynch. “She ended up giving her daughter money, but she was getting her basic needs met.” Some see this situation as exploitation, adds Griffin, others may see it as a survival technique for families who can’t afford to get their basic needs met.

Effective African-American approaches

Several issues conspire to make elder abuse a more serious issue and more difficult to resolve in the African-American community. First, says Griffin, African Americans typically have fewer resources to deal with it. Cultural norms of not telling other people “your business” and mistrust of health care and public safety organizations keep many elders suffering in silence. And most of domestic violence services aren’t located in the black communities. Having to travel long distances is a barrier. So is the lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of providers.

Another significant barrier to providing services to elder abuse victims is the social service agencies themselves, according to Lynch. “Since elders are more atypical clients some agencies miss their needs altogether. Others may identify elder abuse but encounter challenges in addressing it. Counselors report feeling uncomfortable ‘respecting their elders’ and telling them what they should do with their lives.” Lynch received a grant to do some research on this issue during the mid-’90s and then developed a training manual and program on effective responses to elder abuse for practitioners throughout Minnesota.

“If we don’t reach out,” she says, “we’re part of the problem. In addition, we recommend that shelters and social service agencies dealing with this issue, hire a diverse staff. This should include diversity by age, race and economic status. We should try to look like the population we’re trying to serve. BIHA has hired older women for community outreach and to work with senior citizen programs. It also has board members who represent elder members of the community, as well as staff who specialize in senior resources to connect elders with available programs.”

According to Griffin, churches, storefront organizations such as OICs, nutrition sites, established senior programs and battered women’s shelters can be good resources for addressing elder abuse. These sorts of organizations are accessible to members of black communities, and they are trusted.

Never too late

“Often, family and economic issues have kept elders in their abusive situations,” says Lynch. “They’ve been in these kinds of relationships for so long that it has become the norm for them. They don’t feel they have anywhere else to go; some believe that they don’t have much time left. Others wonder: who will believe me since I’ve kept this to myself all of my life?

“If you’re dependent on your husband’s SSI or retirement income, and you don’t want to be a burden on children, there are not a lot of financial options. Some victims live in the same house with their batterer, but in different parts of the house. Of course, this is not optimal, but it is a reality for many.”

“This is a very tough population to work with,” agrees Antonia Vann, CEO of Asha Family Services in Milwaukee, Wis. “A senior’s caregiver is often the abuser. It’s tough turning in your own child, and the seniors are often reliant in many ways on their children.” Other barriers to getting seniors the help they need, according to Vann, include distrust of police and other authorities, as well as fear of the unknown.

“Seniors often stay where they are because that is what they know,” says Vann. They may not want to move out of an abusive situation, since a situation they’re familiar with is less threatening than the unknown.

Vann told a story about two sisters whose nephews lived with them. The young men’s mother had died, and the sons had become drug addicts and dealers. All sorts of thugs came to the house, and the nephews bullied their aunts for money. As things deteriorated, they turned their aunts’ basement into a shooting gallery, says Vann.

Friends of the family contacted Asha Family Services. The agency called the police, and the nephews were put in jail. Asha staff members helped assure that the house was secure. The locks were changed, and bars were put on the windows.

Vann arranged for a nurse to care for the two sisters, and obtained financial assistance to pay the nurse’s salary from the local Urban League, which offered a program to supplement the income of seniors whose living expenses exceed their income. Vann also made sure that the women had a list of numbers they could call if trouble arose again, including a direct dial to the local police.

Community-based services are crucial in getting elders the help they need. “Accountability and an objective intermediary are essential for seniors who face a situation like the one depicted above,” says Vann. “Unfortunately, these scenarios are all too common, and not every community is blessed with social service providers with the skills and resources to help seniors.”

“With folks living longer and often living beyond their means, this is a problem that is likely to get worse before it gets better,” concludes Lynch.

Finding resources for seniors isn’t easy, but here are some places to start:

1. Administration on Aging web site Click on “Elders and Families”
2. Association for Protection of Elders
3. National Center on Elder Abuse
4. Local councils and programs on aging
5. Local senior centers
6. State ombudsmen for seniors
7. Local welfare and social security insurance programs
8. Local battered women’s coalitions
9. Local branches of the Urban League and other advocacy groups
10. County-based social services


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