“I have had major bone problems and an operation on my spine, and I am now questioning whether that was to do with the beatings?”...the words of a 63 year old woman who took part in new research just published, into the effects of domestic violence on older women.The year-long study by researchers at The University of Nottingham’s Division of Nursing has concluded that more needs to be done to identify, support and protect these victims.
Older women who suffer or have suffered domestic abuse are historically a silent section of society and this research set out to give them a voice and break the taboo surrounding the problem. The project was prompted by a previous scarcity of information on the experiences of older victims because most domestic violence surveys tend to focus on younger women. Researchers carried out in depth interviews with a sample of 16 women in the East Midlands area for the study which has just been published in the journal Nursing Older People.
The women who took part in the survey were aged between 59 and 84. They had all experienced abusive behaviour from husbands or partners, some very recently, which had had adverse effects on their mental health and physical wellbeing well into later life.
In the study the long term consequences of physical abuse in older age was identified as a particular issue for several women who took part. One 76 year old told researchers: “I got severely bashed on my ear and I’m told that I can’t hear at all in this ear...it’s a perforated eardrum. I’m waiting for a hearing aid.”
Another woman, aged 63, said:” I’ve got arthritis and I had lots of broken bones when he was doing this... I’m sure this possibly did impact on me now, like now I can hardly walk and I have to go in a wheelchair to go about.”
Others had suffered long term psychological effects both at the time of the abuse and in later life. One former victim of abuse reported: “I’ve been in and out of the hospital having violent attacks of ‘acute anxiety’ they said... because I didn’t have the tools to manage what he was doing to me.” Many older women in the study also reported enduring feelings of low self-esteem: “You just feel that you are totally and utterly stripped of any identity so it is like building another self when you finally get away.”
A generational reluctance to seek help because of embarrassment and perceived shame was also identified by the survey. Another woman in her 60s said: “There was nothing for you... and my parents would say ‘you make your bed then lay there’ really so I got no support... so I think that is the problem and which made me accept the abuse in a funny kind of way.”
Leading the research, Dr Julie McGarry, said: “This was a small scale study however the findings highlight the significant effect of domestic abuse on the immediate and long term physical and mental health of older women. Older women who have experienced abuse have identified particular health and support needs and the services that are currently available may not be appropriate to address these. Raising awareness among nurses and the wider health community is an essential part of addressing this gap.”
The research has concluded that the current services provided by the healthcare industry are not sufficiently tailored to meet the needs of older women. It has also highlighted a general tendency for health care professionals to overlook domestic violence as a potential issue for older women. It says that healthcare professionals such as district nurses are well-placed to spot cases of abuse among their older patients but in the past have lacked the awareness or training to handle the suspicion. The report recommends that the industry should develop more effective strategies to recognise victims and to more actively help them access support services.
The project leaders intend to use this new and unique insight into the complex and largely taboo phenomenon to create a learning resource for healthcare professionals. This is currently under development in collaboration with agencies in the health and social care sector.
The researchers worked on the project with help from Age Concern and Women’s Aid.