This April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), we urge you to consider how sexual assault affects individuals across the lifespan. Sexual assault in later life is something most of us don’t want to discuss. We would rather believe advanced age provides a level of protection from such abuses. However, professionals in the field know this is not true. Advanced age does not protect an individual from sexual assault.
Victim service providers/programs can better serve older adults by addressing some of the misperceptions about sexual assault in later life. Here we offer ideas on creating and/or providing services for older survivors of sexual assault and provide links to resources for further information.
Societal perception has become a barrier for understanding sexual abuse in later life. In spite of the ongoing efforts of those working in the field, society still sees rape as a crime of passion rather than an abuse of power and control. Coupling that with the stereotype that older individuals are not sexual beings, makes it hard for people to believe that sexual assault can happen in later years. We know that elder sexual assault is highly underreported and studies show that survivors are hesitant to reach out for help. (Acierno, 2009).
We also know that sexual assault in later life is often perpetrated by people who have easy access to older individuals. One study has shown that 40% of perpetrators were the spouse of the victim (Acierno, 2009). Many also see sexual assault in later life as a problem isolated to nursing homes. While it is an issue that many nursing homes contend with, reported cases of elder sexual abuse show that 72% of alleged sexual abuses occurred in private homes, while just 23% occurred in facilities and almost 5% occurred in other locations (Burgess, 2008).
One such case of elder sexual abuse is captured in NCALL’s Lifting up the Voices of Older Survivors video project. In this video the survivor, Linda, bravely and candidly recounts her story of being sexually assaulted by her neighbor in her own home. Her story shows that sexual assault is a crime that doesn’t discriminate based on age, but it also reveals Linda’s incredible strength and resiliency as a survivor. Following her assault, Linda went on to take a sexual assault advocate course, earning her certificate and empowering her to help others. She said “It helped me gain more strength, believe more in myself and my capabilities, and how to stay strong. I’d like to be able to help anybody who’s been unfortunate enough to be in this situation.”
Older survivors like Linda can benefit from many of the services that victim service organizations have to offer. Advocates can help survivors navigate the criminal justice system by providing information, court accompaniment, and the emotional support necessary to help survivors heal through a difficult process. By believing and supporting the survivor, advocates can often be the sole source of unbiased support while they navigate systems that often run on ageist assumptions and misinformation. Victim services organizations can also help break some of the isolation many older survivors experience through counseling programs, follow-up support, and support groups specifically designed for older survivors. Traditional domestic and sexual assault victim service programs may have to adjust their services to better meet the needs of older survivors. Some ideas to consider:
- Become familiar with all of the services and programs for older adults in your community. The ElderCare Locator is a searchable database to help programs find services for older adults in their community.
- Clearly understand elder abuse mandatory reporting requirements in your state.
- Consider mobile advocacy—meet victims in their home when it is safe to do so, or meet victims at their church, a senior center, or other locations comfortable for the older survivor.
- Create written materials in larger font and contrasting colors so they are easier to read.
- Depict diverse older survivors in your outreach materials such as brochures, posters, and handouts. Be mindful of the language included in these materials. For instance, consider using simple descriptions of acts of violence rather than terms such as sexual abuse or assault.
- Make regular visits to senior centers in your community, faith communities, and other places older individuals may frequent.
- Ensure your hiring practices embrace the diversity of people who live in your community including older individuals.
- Educate all of your staff members, including crisis line workers, on the needs of older survivors and the resources available for them in your community.
Resources that might be helpful:
Sexual Violence in Later Life Information Packet – This informational packet was developed by Holly Ramsey-Klawsnik, PhD, in conjunction with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The packet includes the following: fact sheet, technical assistance bulletin, technical assistance guide, resource list, annotated bibliography, research brief, and an online collection. Released in 2010.
Sexual Violence in Later Life: A Technical Assistance Guide for Health Care Providers – The purpose of this guide is to assist physicians, nurses, and other clinical health care providers in meeting their professional obligations in identifying and providing intervention and treatment to older victims of sexual violence.
National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women – A website with a collection of resources called “Preventing and Responding to Domestic & Sexual Violence in Later Life.”
Acierno, R., Hernandez-Tejada, M., Muzzy, W., Steve, K. (2009). National Elder Mistreatment Study.
Burgess, Ann, Ramsey-Klawsnik, Holly, & Gregorian, Sara (2008). Comparing routes of reporting in elder sexual abuse cases. Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, 20(4), 336-352.
Sara Mayer, M.A., is the Communications Coordinator for the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life