Today, 15 June, is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Unfortunately, it is all too often assumed that domestic abuse mainly happens to young women and that if abuse is experienced by older people it is always in institutional settings. These assumptions can mean that the abuse of older people in a family context is missed, simply because it is not being looked for. When the abuse is carried out through coercive control it can be even more difficult to spot. But what is coercive control of older people?
I had the opportunity to contribute to a ground-breaking conference dealing with this issue in Cardiff earlier this year. Jointly hosted by Action on Elder Abuse Cymru, Welsh Women’s Aid and sponsored by Assembly Member Julie James, the event was a much-needed opportunity to address the reality that domestic abuse can happen to anyone, of any age, from any background, in any walk of life, including older people. More, that it is not confined to partner relationships but can happen across the generations of a family.
The conference first highlighted some fundamentals: at the end of the day, abuse is about wielding power over others, and coercive control is the term for the way in which it is perpetrated. So physical violence is only one aspect, often, but not always present. Controlling someone’s life can include removing access to money, friends, family, work, monitoring phone calls, intercepting letters and emails, always being present at visits to the GP or hospital, undermining someone, criticising all they do, telling them what and when they are permitted to eat or sleep - all these can have a devastating effect on someone’s autonomy and well-being. Such behaviour is also not a one-off occurrence, but a repeated pattern over time. For some older people they may have experienced this type of abuse for many, many years.
Significantly, Action on Elder Abuse defined the abuse of older people back in 1995, a definition that was then adopted by the World Health Organisation. It is encouraging that World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is now a way of increasing understanding. The definition is:
‘A single or repeated act or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person. It has at its heart the ‘expectation of trust’ that an older person may rightly establish with another person, but which is subsequently violated.’
The consequences of being on the receiving end of such a breach of trust is that ‘it can complicate the ability of an older person to accept or confront what is happening to them.’
Coercive control happens behind closed doors, can be difficult to distinguish from genuine care, but when such care and concern seems a little over-the-top and overbearing, perhaps alarm bells should be ringing? The victim might feel ashamed that it will bring stigma on the family, the perpetrator may have threatened that the victim will not be believed, belitting them and eroding their confidence to speak up. So it is understandable that people may find it difficult to contemplate disclosing what is happening to them and who is doing it.
In 2013 the Home Office issued new guidelines on domestic abuse which underlined the importance of understanding that it can be perpetrated by one family member against another, the definition of family members used being: mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, grandparents; directly-related, in-laws or step-family. Unfortunately, five years later, the awareness of this broad context of who is capable of perpetrating control is not as wide-spread as it should be.
The conference in Cardiff opened up discussion on strategies to tackle this issue for older people. I spoke about one way of making it easier to spot these problems - the vital work to change how we perceive older generations. Some years ago I was asked to find a group of people in their 80s and older, to be some of the many contributors to a large-scale investigation by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: Widening Choices for Older People with High Support Needs. It looked at the support which is given and received, not by service-providers, but by older people for each other. This support is often under the radar, so to speak, and the report illustrated that if we see people with support needs as only that, it is easy to fall into the trap of forgetting that they also have capabilities which they wish and need to exercise and share.
Older members at the community centre I was running were only too eager to meet the researchers, who were quite frankly bowled over by the feisty, self-assured attitudes they encountered. These so called ‘senior citizens’ were in no doubt about what they wanted for themselves and what they were capable of. Coercive control, by contrast, seeks to persuade people that they do not know what is best for them and that they are not capable.
The Adult Safeguarding and Domestic Abuse Guidelines, issued in 2015 by the Local Government Association and Directors of Adult Social Services emphasised this issue:
‘Domestic abuse approaches historically have had an emphasis on partner violence. More focus now needs to be given to family and inter-generational abuse and the way in which it may be different from partner violence, for example if the perpetrator is the victim’s (adult) sibling, child or grandchild.’
So things are moving slowly in the right direction to a better understanding of who can be affected by abuse and how, and that this includes older people.