Gender Violence in the Elderly: What Can Be Done About It?

Gender-based violence in women over 65 has been invisible for decades. That's because not all of them ask for help or have enough financial independence to leave the person who's been mistreating them all their lives.
Gender Violence in the Elderly: What Can Be Done About It?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Gender violence in the elderly is a common phenomenon, but we don’t tend to hear about it. As a matter of fact, it’s estimated that women over 65 experience more discrimination, abuse, and violence than the younger generations. However, in many cases, they’ve assumed the role for so long, it becomes impossible for them to report it or escape from the situation.

In recent years, there has been an upsurge in what’s known as “gray divorce”. In other words, the dissolution of marriage or the separation of couples who are more than 50 years of age. However, it must be borne in mind that this age cohort is still young. Indeed, they have a modern view of emotional relationships. Furthermore, in many cases, they’re financially independent.

However, as a rule, women between 70 to 75 years old who suffer attacks by their spouses don’t know how to act. Moreover, they’ve usually been normalizing these dynamics for a lifetime. They don’t ask for help and are fully aware that they’re financially dependent on their partners.

Violence against older women appears in a number of ways. In many cases, the abuse comes from their spouses. However, it can also appear in institutional settings or from caregivers.

Older woman thinking about gender violence in the elderly

The characteristics of gender violence in the elderly

Gender-based violence in the elderly is a complex phenomenon that needs examining. There are many factors that orchestrate it.

For example, one aspect we should consider is the fact that the woman herself often doesn’t identify certain abusive dynamics in their relationship as abuse. That’s because they frequently operate within the narrative of a clearly sexist relationship. Statements such as: “We’re a couple, I just have to put up with it” or: “Where would I go? My place is at home with my husband”  are extremely common.

Doctors Sarah R. Meyer, Molly E. Lasater, and Claudia García-Moreno conducted research that suggested that most of the evidence and documentation relating to gender violence focuses on ages between 15 and 49 years.

Indeed, it appears that research involving older women has long been neglected. This is despite the fact that recent findings reveal that violence against women over 65 is extremely common. In addition, it has a tremendous impact on their physical and mental well-being.

The abuse that becomes chronic and normalized in a relationship

We know that there are different types of abuse within the category of gender violence. The most common are emotional and psychological. In fact, there are many elderly women who’ve been suffering these kinds of situations for decades. For example, these are the kinds of events that occur.

  • Their partner belittles them and treats them with contempt.
  • Economic abuse. Their partner assumes absolute control of their finances. They may even forbid the woman to work. Furthermore, they decide what to do with their money.
  • Their partner insists on making all the decisions.
  • They blackmail and threaten the woman.
  • They insult and make disqualifying comparisons.
  • They’re in absolute control of the woman’s image. For example, they decide how she should dress.
  • They isolate her. In fact, she’s restricted from having any friends or leaving the house to socialize, etc.
  • Aggressive communication. For instance, yelling and criticism.
  • They invalidate her emotions and needs.
  • They exhibit indifferent and passive behavior. Furthermore, they overlook any problems and needs she may have.

Many times, the children themselves tend to normalize these situations of abuse. That’s because they’re simply what they’ve grown up with. When they reach adulthood, they sometimes become aware of the reality in which their mothers live,. However, it’s really difficult to extricate their mothers from these positions of suffering when the women are in their 60s or 70s.

Causes of gender violence in the elderly

Gender-based violence in the elderly can be mediated by several factors. The most common trigger is the one related to sexism and those schemas in which the man is perceived as being superior to the woman. This is the kind of situation that the vast majority of us clearly understand as wrong.

However, when it comes to violence in old age, we must also be sensitive to other factors. For example:

  • There may come a time when a spouse develops dementia. As a matter of fact, certain neurodegenerative diseases can promote abuse. Therefore, it should be borne in mind that Alzheimer’s and senile dementia can often be behind a great deal of aggression. Consequently, this is something that needs more psychosocial and healthcare attention from the community.
  • There can be other situations of vulnerability. For example, when the woman is completely dependent and relies on her husband as her caregiver. These overwhelming situations can sometimes lead to abuse.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t forget gender-based violence in the elderly that can occur in institutional settings, such as residential care homes.

Dementia is a major risk factor for maltreatment among older couples.

Older woman suffering gender violence in the elderly

How can you help older women in situations of abuse?

The environment of the woman is key in any situation of abuse. However, when they reach advanced ages it often becomes more difficult to detect abuse.

It’s quite possible that children, relatives, and neighbors don’t take action in this situation. Perhaps they don’t dare to. Furthermore, it may be the case that the woman is increasingly isolated at home and has no social network at all.

What can be done in these circumstances?

  • Health centers and primary care environments are settings in which there’s frequent contact. Professionals must have a protocol in place to detect both psychological and physical abuse.
  • Health centers must also have a document with which to request a woman’s protection order if the situation requires it.
  • In general, the woman is usually reluctant to leave the relationship with the other person because of their absolute economic dependence on them. Therefore, professionals should assess their situation and give them advice.
  • It’s important to advise them and offer them support mechanisms. For example, another place to live away from the aggressor. Indeed, support from their environment is essential, if it’s available, of course.
  • In these situations, it helps a lot for the abused woman to talk to other women who’ve been in the same kind of situation.

Inevitably, these are highly personally complex situations. Furthermore, it should be remembered that the prevention of gender-based violence always starts with raising awareness.

Therefore, try and be sensitive to the reality that your neighbors or relatives could be living through. Indeed, bear in mind that real drama could be occurring behind the doors of many homes.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Grunfeld, Anton & Larsson, D & Mackay, K & Hotch, D. (1996). Domestic violence against elderly women. Canadian family physician Médecin de famille canadien. 42. 1485-93.
  • Meyer SR, Lasater ME, García-Moreno C (2020) Violence against older women: A systematic review of qualitative literature. PLoS ONE 15(9): e0239560.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.