Chronic disease. Homelessness. Poverty. Racism. Each of these pervasive issues, epidemics in their own right, have been exacerbated by COVID-19. But there is another pressing epidemic that is often overlooked and has also worsened during COVID – the abuse and neglect of older adults, particularly older women.
Although sparse, existing evidence indicates that violence against older women continues to afflict millions globally. In Canada, a 2015 national study on elder abuse revealed that older women were more likely than older men to experience mistreatment overall and two times more likely to experience sexual abuse, with the odds of experiencing sexual abuse doubling for unmarried women.
In a 2019 report from the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, the overall rate of family violence (including homicide, sexual assault, physical assault and other offences involving threat of violence) perpetrated against older women was 21.5 per cent higher than the rate for older men. Additionally, a whopping 90 per cent of the reported cases of sexual assault among adults aged 65 to 89 were perpetrated against women. Rates of violence against older women are only expected to grow as our population ages globally.
The compounding impacts of ageism and sexism at the root of this problem have been apparent in real time throughout the pandemic. According to Human Rights Watch, lockdown orders may have exacerbated the risk of violence in the home for older women and diminished their access to formal and informal supports.
Additionally, following the devastating outbreaks of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities across Canada, many have questioned whether their near collapse was the result of years of neglect from governments that refused to allot due priority to a system overwhelmingly staffed and occupied by women.
Older women do, of course, also experience other intersecting forms of oppression such as racism, heterosexism, classism and ableism. These ‘-isms’ can dismiss or completely erase older women in research and action on gender- and age-based violence. This, in turn, limits how we think about, define and respond to elder abuse.
The World Health Organization characterizes elder abuse as “a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person.”
Criticisms of this definition are abundant, among them a lack of clarity with respect to what, exactly, constitutes “harm” or “distress” and the omission of violence perpetrated by someone unknown to the victim. Moreover, there has been a longstanding criticism of the problematic homogenization of older women and men as “older adults,” which can serve to obscure the very real differences in how older women and men experience violence and abuse.
Inadequate definitions of the problem undermine efforts to meaningfully analyze sex- and gender-based disparities in elder abuse and, ultimately, result in responses that fail to meet the specific needs of older women that can range from immediate physical injury, social isolation and financial loss to chronic physical and mental illness.
Barriers to help-seeking for abused older women are numerous and significant. They include ageist assumptions that gender-based violence only impacts younger women; the commonplace confusion of signs of abuse with physical changes during the aging process; gaps in knowledge and understanding among service providers about the unique needs and circumstances of older women; and a dearth of accessible and appropriate services.
Research-informed online video learning modules have been developed by Women’s College Research Institute to address these and other barriers to support and are available freely from partner organizations such as the Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centres and Elder Abuse Prevention Ontario.
These five interactive modules provide comprehensive knowledge about the unique needs of older women who have experienced violence, the intersections of gender and age and other factors when addressing violence against older women and strategies to strengthen service provision, policies, and partnerships.
As we anticipate the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and look to shape a more equitable future for women, we cannot lose sight of this other pressing public health and human rights concern. World Elder Abuse Awareness Day takes place on June 15. It offers us an opportune moment to educate ourselves about the gendered realities of violence against older adults and, in doing so, finally begin to address them.