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Sunday Seniors: Domestic Trauma, Violence Affects Senior Citizens Too



Valley News Calendar Editor
Tuesday, October 09, 2018

North Haverhill — Horse Meadow Senior Center Director Jessica Aiken-Hall knows a thing or two about domestic trauma.

Last year, she self-published a memoir, The Monster That Ate My Mommy, about her personal experience with domestic violence. Aiken-Hall’s experience piqued the interest of the senior citizens at the center, leading to the formation of a domestic trauma support group that is scheduled to start at 10:45 a.m. on Oct. 18.

“It started because I wrote my memoir that talks about my experiences. Participants Googled me and found out,” Aiken-Hall said. “After people read my story. They were reaching out to me to let me know they can relate on many different levels.”

After hearing from some senior citizens about their experiences, Aiken-Hall decided to start the support group. The start also coincides with October’s status as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“I think they’re a generation that didn’t talk about it,” she said. “You didn’t tell people what was going on, or that was how you were raised. So you just dealt with it.”

In addition, Aiken-Hall will help connect senior citizens with other resources to talk about trauma and abuse. Anyone can attend, regardless of what town or state they live in.

“It could be any type of trauma from the past or present,” Aiken-Hall said. Her goal is “just to give them a safe space.”

Domestic Violence Affects Senior Citizens Too

After speaking to Aiken-Hall, I became curious: How often are senior citizens the victims of domestic violence?

The answer is not so simple: That’s because domestic violence can also be included under the umbrella of elder abuse.

“Sometimes people think when we’re talking about elder abuse it’s more likely to be the children or the caregiver of the older person,” said Abby Tassel, senior program adviser at WISE who is also part of a coalition of government and nonprofit organizations studying elder abuse in Windsor County through a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. “Often if there’s any kind of physical abuse or neglect it’s partnered with some sort of financial abuse.”

But seniors can be affected by intimate partner violence as well.

“If there was domestic violence earlier in the relationship, it doesn’t disappear later in the relationship,” Tassel said. “It’s something that’s a huge problem and the barriers for someone who’s elderly is bigger even for someone who is younger.”

One of those barriers is health. The partner who is the abuser may also be the primary caregiver for their partner.

“Then leaving can feel like less of an option,” Tassel said. That can be compounded if the person who is being abused has a memory loss disorder. “It becomes very difficult to interact with the legal system.”

Another is income.

For seniors on a fixed income, they may not be able to afford to move to another space. Since they are retired, they cannot necessarily enter a job training program to support themselves.

There may also be fewer housing options for someone who is older and looking to leave a shared home with an abusive partner.

“The reality is it is harder to be in a place that isn’t your home that you’re not used to when you’re older,” Tassel said. “Almost everything that we do, we have to think about it when it comes to someone who is elderly because often it feels as though there are fewer options.”

WISE has started to see an increase in the number of older adults that call the nonprofit organization for assistance. In 2016, the percentage of people age 60 and older who called was 4.8 percent. In 2015, that percentage grew to 5.3 percent and in 2017 it was 5.5 percent. 

“There are so many stereotypes against domestic violence,” Tassel said.

The image that often comes to mind is often of a younger woman with kids in tow fleeing an abusive spouse.

“Older victims often don’t see themselves as victims of domestic violence,” said Carol Stamatakis, executive director of Senior Solutions, the lead partner on the grant to study elder abuse. Domestic violence awareness campaigns may also inadvertently exclude older adults. “It often seems to be geared toward younger women, so an older woman who sees a… poster like that in a restroom might not see that as her.”

Seniors also might not think they are a fit for the type of assistance WISE can provide.

“We are here for everyone and we want people to know that,” Tassel said. “I think we haven’t done necessarily as good a job as we could making sure that message is out there.”

But even if seniors know there are organizations that can assist them, they may not reach out.

“It can be very challenging to persuade people to accept help even when it is available,” Stamatakis said. 

As people age, it can also be harder to separate intimate partner violence from elder abuse.

“It's kind of underreported. It’s under discussed. It’s difficult,” Stamatakis said. “It’s hard to encourage folks to reach out to get help and at the same time respect the autonomy of adults. It’s kind of a challenging issue and a cultural issue.”

As the coalition continues to study elder abuse, intimate partner violence will also be considered.

“I think there's a lot of overlap and there’s a lot to be learned,” said Gary Schall, elder justice project coordinator for Senior Solutions who is also working on the grant. 

Editor’s note: To register for the Horse Meadow Senior Center domestic trauma support group, call 603-787-2539 or email jhall@gcscc.org. To speak to someone at WISE’s 24-hour crisis line, call 866-348-9473. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.