On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Welsh Women's Aid calls on public services in Wales to recognise and respond to the thousands of older women living with financial abuse, as part of a wider pattern of domestic abuse.
The stark reality of financial abuse for many women means being prevented from access to independent income, having their spending monitored, debts built up in their name, or being forced to steal by the abuser. But this rarely occurs in isolation. The Older People's Commissioner in Wales estimates that over 40,000 older people in Wales are abused in their own homes every year.
This abuse includes partners or family members using physical, sexual, psychological and financial abuse to exert power and control over every aspect of women's lives. As a control tactic domestic abuse re-creates and reinforces women's economic dependence and is a means by which abusers are able to achieve the financial power previously held over women by men by legal default.
These attitudes still prevail in some relationships, even though laws have changed. Older women tell us that the barriers all survivors face when getting help are exacerbated because of their age, by beliefs that women should be subservient to men, by health problems, increased isolation, reduced mobility, greater financial dependence, or fear of being institutionalised if they speak out.
Older women also tell us that their experiences are more likely to be overlooked or dismissed by public services. Professionals tend not to consider domestic abuse as an issue for older women so might rarely ask about it, and they might also assume that injuries, confusion, depression and other effects of abuse are the results of age-related conditions.
Trisha* told us that "more needs to be done to raise awareness among mature women about abuse...whether it's domestic abuse, rape or sexual violence, people tend to think it's younger people...forcing someone to give up driving or not allowing them to work can be hidden easily among older generations because people will presume that someone has stopped these activities because of age, rather than making the link with domestic abuse".
Eirlys* told us how services normalised the abuse she experienced from her son and expected her to simply deal with it, "neighbours called the police and they just came and asked him 'have you hit your mother again?'. I'm older, I suffer from ill health and I'm disabled and the health worker had to stop coming around my house because he's so dangerous. But they expect me to live there".
Bronwen* spoke of the lack of options open to her to leave her abusive husband, highlighting that the support services required, which differ across the lifespan, might not be as readily available to meet older women's needs: "financially at my time of life I can't start all over again, and there's still a strong assumption in our generation you need a man to survive. I would live on my own in a small flat if I could have support."
Ann* told us that isolation from family, friends, communities and services can be one of the most difficult things for older women to deal with. For some this can be made harder still by physical impairments that can come with older age. Ann explained that her focus was on her family, "you don't go out at my age and try to enjoy yourself or anything like that."
After living with sustained abuse Ann sought support from a refuge service. Initially reluctant to live with other people after years of isolation, she said the women's refuge changed her life. Support workers helped Ann set up her own bank account because her partner had not allowed her any money, and with finding her own home. If it had not been for the refuge support, Ann said, she did not think she would be here today: "As an older women you don't think you can do those things but support makes you realise that you can, that you're not too old for anything. At my age you think life has ended, they gave me a different outlook."
It's time we invested in a new approach to supporting survivors of abuse in Wales, so that every point of interaction with survivors and perpetrators is an opportunity for getting help and support, which should not be missed. Our focus, at Welsh Women's Aid, is to transform community and public service responses whilst making sure specialist services collaborate to continue to provide the vital lifeline that survivors need.
Everyone has a role in creating communities that are knowledgeable and don't tolerate abuse.
By donating to local specialist services and supporting Welsh Women's Aid, you can join us to build a movement in Wales to ensure violence and abuse is not inevitable or acceptable, and that older victims of abuse have equal access to protection, help and support they need.
*Names have been changed.