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Domestic Abuse and Older Adults - Hidden Harms

In partnership with Dewis Choice, NSAB have produced a new animation, 'Hidden Harms', to highlight the unique challenges that older adults face when domestic abuse occurs.


Based on the power and control wheel as adapted by Dewis Choice, the aim of this short animation is to be a tool to help support practitioners and families start a conversation with an older adult.

We know from research that this is a very sensitive topic to talk about; older adults may be more reluctant to talk about problems at home due to experiential, cultural, and social factors, and this combined with ageing and subsequent care needs leaves them vulnerable to having domestic abuse overlooked (Older women and domestic abuse | Iriss).

Much work has been done to make asking questions (safely) about domestic abuse a “routine enquiry”. This means asking about a person’s safety and wellbeing at home as a standard part of contact / assessment, making it part of your routine, supporting early intervention and therefore better outcomes when risks are present (prevention and protection principles).

Routine enquiry is not exclusive to domestic violence and abuse and it can enable staff to understand the context of the person that they are supporting.

Here’s some advice on using the animation effectively to have positive conversations about domestic abuse with older adults:

  1. Take some time to have an honest conversation, using the animation to prompt different ideas or talking points
  2. Listen closely, and allow them to share their own thoughts on the situation so that you can understand the situation as fully as possible
  3. Don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions about what might be happening; ask questions to find out from the adults themselves
  4. Agree concrete steps together, like taking some time to think the situation through and meeting again, or agreeing to contact a third party together
  5. You can always access more support from a variety of services if you feel unsure about the next steps, such as NIDAS and other domestic abuse services.

Sarah Wydall, Principal Investigator at Dewis Choice, said:

“This animation provides vital information to help someone identify abusive and harmful behaviours by family members and/or intimate partners. The animation explores different types of abuse and encourages individuals to seek help.

The animation has been co-created by survivors aged between 60-93 years old from Dewis Choice, who are now in recovery and living free from harm, fear and abuse. Talking to someone about the behaviour will not mean having to make decisions you are not ready for, but it will create options to help you get the support you need to feel safer and happier. Helplines mean there are people you can talk to, in confidence, and gain support from.

Crucial to transforming the response to domestic abuse in later life is starting conversations with older victim-survivors, many of whom may have been deliberately isolated by a perpetrator of domestic abuse for years or decades. The longitudinal study at Dewis Choice has highlighted how emotional, physical, sexual, economic abuse and coercive control negatively impact on victim survivors’ daily existence and quality of life.

Starting conversations about how you feel and getting appropriate support can make such a difference to an older victim’s life’’.

What is domestic abuse?

Abuse can occur at any age and is often under reported over age 65. Safeguarding often considers ‘carer’s stress’ when incidents occur, and while one-off events do happen, it needs to be explored to see if there are any patterns or history.  

Older generations will view marriage and relationships in what we consider quite old-fashioned ways now – think about the vows, “to love, honour and obey”, come what may.  Men went out to work, women stayed at home and were often very dependent on their husbands for many things, especially money.  Today we would consider if this was coercive control.  Both sides will have been used to these roles. 

Older victims are less likely to leave the abusive situation, for a wide range of reasons: 

  • love of abuser
  • generational acceptance of the abuse
  • fear of repercussions, or not being believed
  • fear of being institutionalised, losing what independence they do have
  • loss of ability to communicate clearly
  • the responsibility of being a carer or being cared for by an abuser
  • disability or physical frailty
  • fear of financial insecurity
  • leaving treasured possessions and home of a lifetime, pets
  • lack of sense of entitlement
  • responses of family members / adult children

Older people may have been victims for a very long time; they may be dependent on care provided by their abusers; they are more restricted by the impact of age, frailty or disability; in Norfolk we have a lot of older people living in isolated rural areas.

Workers may not recognise domestic abuse in older adults, perhaps seeing the more obvious abuse categories first, e.g. physical abuse, financial abuse, emotional abuse.

The perpetrator may also have care needs – someone with a dementia may hit out at their carer or be verbally abusive.

This applies to men and women – remember to avoid gender bias and stereotyping, women can be the abuser too. Men may find it harder to admit that they are being abused or feel they will not be believed. Carers of any gender can abuse or be abused. Many services supporting victims of domestic abuse are tailored towards women, which can limit the options for men.

More Resources

NSAB guidance on domestic abuse and older adults is a policy document which supports the development of processes to ensure that organisations consider the specific barriers and challenges involved in supporting older people to engage with domestic abuse services.

Last in Line - briefing paper about abuse of older adults is the first in a series of briefing papers produced by Hourglass that will form the Safer Ageing Index – the first ever comprehensive examination of how the UK is doing when it comes to creating the right conditions for older people to age safely and reduce the risk and impact of abuse and neglect. Hourglass is the UK’s only charity focused on the abuse and neglect of older people whose mission is simple: end the harm, abuse and exploitation of older people in the UK.

NIDAS is a domestic abuse support service for those assessed to be high or medium risk in Norfolk offering a variety of services from multiple partners to support individuals facing domestic abuse. For free confidential advice please call 0300 561 0555.