This April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), we honor the strength and resilience of survivors across the lifespan. Sexual assault in itself is a difficult topic to address. Sexual assault in later life is something most of us don’t want to discuss at all. Many would like to believe advanced age provides a level of protection from such violence, however this is simply untrue. Ageist notions about older adults–specifically beliefs about their sexuality and desirability–reinforce societal views of an “ideal” victim. And while strides have been made in the gender-based violence movement to show that sexual violence is an abuse of power and an act of control, there is still much work to do to discount the narrative that it is a crime of passion.
To bring focus to the issue of sexual assault in later life and lift up the voices of older survivors, we would like to share the courageous story of Linda, who survived an assault by a stranger in her own home.
Linda opened up several years after her assault to share her experience with us in order to help others on their own path toward healing. Hers is a story of faith, resilience, personal strength, and the impact of healing supports from victim services, the faith community, family, friends, and community members.
[TW: sexual violence, rape. This subject matter may be difficult to view. If you would like to talk to someone, the National Sexual Assault Hotline provides trained specialists who give confidential, anonymous support to survivors and their loved ones, 24/7. Call or chat options are available: 800-656-HOPE | http://online.rainn.org ]
Linda was sexually assaulted by a neighbor who she had met once. Most often, when older adults are sexually assaulted or abused, the offender is an intimate partner, a family member, or caregiver. Older adults who live in facilities, such as assisted living or nursing homes, may be sexually abused by other residents, paid staff, volunteers, or family or friends visiting them.
Offering Healing Supports and Resources
Older victims of sexual abuse and assault react in different ways and each case is unique. Start by listening to and believing the older survivor. Validate the victim’s strengths and resilience and maximize the older adult’s opportunities to choose and control as many aspects of the investigation, prosecution, and service delivery plan as possible.
If you suspect that an older adult you know or work with has been sexually assaulted or is being abused, you can:
- Look for indicators of sexual abuse, such as older adults who have changes in behavior, appear to be afraid, or do not want to be touched.
- Listen for coded disclosures, such as older adults not wanting another person to be near them or working for them.
- Gently ask specific, direct questions if you are concerned. Even if older adults tell you that they are fine, you have opened the door for them to tell you about sexual abuse at another time when they may be ready to get help.
- Refer them to the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE) or your local rape crisis center.
- Propose calling or going together to meet a victim service provider who can discuss safety planning and other assistance.
- Talk with the older adult about contacting law enforcement or adult protective services (APS). When appropriate, report abuse to law enforcement or APS. Keep in mind that a law enforcement or APS investigation can be frightening and traumatic for some older adults. Offer support throughout the process.
- For professionals who work directly with victims, how your agency responds to sexual assault in later life will depend on your role, your state statutes or tribal codes/statutes, your agency protocols, and your current working relationships with potential partners in your community.
Linda benefitted from living in a community where law enforcement, prosecutors, health care providers, a sexual assault nurse examiner, victim service providers, and other community supports knew each other and worked closely together to respond to her case. Collaboration and coordination can make a huge difference in an older victim’s journey toward their emotional and physical recovery and well-being.
If you are not yet familiar with resources that are available in your community for older victims, consider reaching out to adult protective services, a local victim service provider, or aging network services agency to learn more about their work. In becoming familiar with your community’s supports and building a rapport with other professionals who work with older adults, you will be able to accurately describe services and provide a warm referral to an older survivor.
Raising Awareness of the Issue of Sexual Assault in Later Life
Sexual assault in later life is highly underreported, under-discussed, and often not believed to happen at all. As previously mentioned, a common misconception about sexual violence is that it is a crime of passion. This failure to recognize the power and control dynamics behind acts of sexual violence, when coupled with ageist stereotypes about older adults being asexual or not sexually desirable, lead many to believe sexual assault in later life doesn’t exist. Ageist and ableist stereotypes about older people lacking capacity to understand what happened to them also plays a role. For some older adults, generational values about sex may affect their willingness to open up about their experience or how they talk about the abuse. Adults in their 50s and 60s may identify what happened to them as sexual assault, whereas adults 70 years and older may refer to their experience as a trauma, an invasion, or a violation, but not sexual violence. Familial relationships, particularly those in which the perpetrator is a trusted family member like a spouse, child, or grandchild, make it more difficult to disclose abuse or seek supports.
This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we ask for your help in bringing attention to the issue of sexual assault in later life and affirming your commitment to supporting survivors across the lifespan. You can start today by:
- Believing and supporting survivors of all ages
- Exposing ageism and resisting ageist assumptions that older adults are not victims of sexual violence
- Educating yourself and others about sexual violence in later life
- Amplifying supportive and inclusive messaging in your sexual assault outreach or public awareness efforts
Please contact us, firstname.lastname@example.org, if you have questions, comments, concerns, or simply want to connect and let us know what you’re doing in support of older survivors of abuse.
With gratitude for all you do,
The NCALL Team
Sara Mayer, MA, is the Communications Coordinator for the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life.