Family violence and domestic violence – chances are these words make us think of women and children escaping from violent or abusive partners. We don’t immediately associate elder abuse with family violence, and yet it fits completely within the accepted definition.
The Family Violence Act 2008 defines family violence as behaviour towards a family member that is physically, sexually, emotionally, psychologically or economically abusive; or is threatening or coercive; or in any other way controls or dominates the family member and causes them to feel fear for their safety or wellbeing or for that of another person.
Like other forms of family violence, elder abuse is often hidden, the victims can be reluctant to report or speak about it, and they may feel shame or guilt about the perpetrator’s behaviour. They may even want to protect them. What is particular about elder abuse is that it is often not the continuation of a previous pattern of behaviour. It may start up when, because of ageing, the victim becomes more vulnerable, or relationships in the family change. And what is quite specific to this kind of abuse is that the older person and the abuser can be mutually dependent: for care, financial support, housing, transport.
How abuse happens
Abuse often arises when an adult child who is having difficulties in their own life – perhaps due to addiction, job loss, marital breakdown, or mental illness – returns home to live with their parent, and begins to exploit them financially or to mistreat them physically or psychologically. Often the parent does not identify this as ‘abuse’, just as bad behaviour that they think they have to put up with. And even if they understand that it is abuse, they think that involving the police or taking legal action could leave them worse off financially, living alone and isolated, or in care, or it could mean a criminal penalty for their child. They are often worried that taking action could mean they lose control over decisions about their life.
Another common scenario is where one partner becomes the other’s carer, and abusive behaviour occurs in response to the demands and stresses of caring for a loved one who may be moving into dementia or becoming increasingly frail and unable to care for themselves.
The current legal regime for dealing with family violence, with its reliance on Intervention Orders, while much less onerous and unwieldy for victims than it used to be, is still not an easy one for older victims of abuse to use. For many older people it will be their first time in court, a place where they would much rather not be. Court environments are stressful and intimidating, days in court waiting for hearings are long, and giving evidence in public can feel humiliating. The adversarial process which puts applicants and respondents on opposite sides can be destructive of relationships that the older person wants and needs to maintain.
Services for older people, particularly support services for victims of elder abuse, need to take into account not just the older person’s need for safety but also their need to maintain their relationships as much as possible and to retain control over their own life. Addressing the perpetrator’s problems while supporting the victim could lead to a better outcome for the older person. Agencies responding to elder abuse need to offer integrated services informed by a holistic approach.