The Abused: Older Women Raise Voices in New Research

Article excerpt

"There was a joke about a couple. The man was 105 and his wife was 95 and they decided to separate after 70 years of marriage. When they were asked why they had waited so long to separate, they said they were waiting for the children to die. . . . Well, in some ways that joke demonstrates that people in older generations did not so much not separate because of domestic abuse, but it was more like they didn 't have a concept of separation. It is really rare to hear of an older couple separating, very rare, because, well, if you spend 50 years together, why not pass the next 30 years together too? I think that violence, fights and arguments must exist, but it is harder to make the decision [to leave] being from another generation that wasn't raised with that option."

-Participant quotation from the report "Domestic Violence Against Older Women," National Institute of Justice.

Between 2002 and 2004, The Center on Aging of Florida International University conducted a study titled "Domestic Violence Against Older Women." The purpose of this qualitative research was to increase knowledge and understanding about domestic violence against older women by allowing many of them to speak about how they define such violence; express their views about causes, reporting, interventions and consequences for perpetrators; discuss factors that deter or prevent help-seeking from law enforcement, the courts, social services and healthcare agencies; and explore the elements of outreach and intervention strategies they see as acceptable or desirable.

NORMAL VS. ABERRANT

We conducted 21 focus groups with 134 women in varying combinations of three ethnic or racial groups (Hispanic, black non-Hispanic, white non-Hispanic), three age cohorts (45-59, 60-74, 75 or older), two income levels (above or below $14,856), and presence or absence of prior domestic violence victimization after age 45. The study focused on basic topics to elicit data needed to answer key research questions-including how best to define normal vs. aberrant situations, and what participants could reveal about the language of domestic violence, its causes, issues in telling someone about violence, getting help and consequences for perpetrators.

Although there are many types of elder abuse and neglect with few cases involving physical violence, and different kinds of abuse are perpetrated both by men and women, a majority of victims are female. To understand participants' concept of unacceptable violence in intimate relationships, the research team began discussions by asking women to describe normal conflict in such relationships. Their responses helped frame our understanding of how different older women identify the threshold where conflict becomes abusive.

Computerized qualitative data analysis software was used to analyze audiotape transcriptions of each group discussion. The study confirmed that older participants in all ethnic or racial groups talked about domestic abuse in much the same terms and all indicated its occurrence, with some regularity, in their communities. For example, one respondent observed, "There's some older women that are still getting black eyes, beat up." At least some respondents in each group were aware of the occurrence of domestic abuse among people they knew.

The only participants who seemed reluctant to acknowledge domestic abuse were women in the oldest groups (age 75 or more), where some respondents insisted that to keep a peaceful life they accept things as they are. For example, one person in this age group said, "Many times I think women are afraid [to ask for help]. Especially as you get older, you become very used to the way you live. And if somebody hurts you, you can't imagine why but they do it. …