October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. One of our most important community partners in our Cambridge Elder Abuse Prevention Coalition is Assistant Director Ronit Barkai and the staff of Transition House. Ronit is yet another example of community members who are the “Heart and Soul of Elder Abuse Prevention.”
What do you do professionally and do you ever encounter elder abuse issues in your work?
My name is Ronit Barkai and I am the Assistant Director of Transition House, located in Cambridge (MA). Transition House is one of the oldest domestic violence agencies in the country. The agency started out in 1976 and was very much a grassroots organization, staffed by volunteers and greatly connected to the feminist movement and activism of those days. The majority of our work up until about 4 years ago was sheltering victims of violence that fled to us and who were not local. About 14 years ago, Transition House began opening a variety of housing programs that offered more long term housing options for people fleeing domestic violence (a Transitional Living Program and Supported Housing Program – a total of 12 apartments that house 17 people). The intent was to allow a longer time for survivors to get back on their feet following domestic abuse. I have worked at Transition House for 14 years and as far as I know, and recall, very few elder victims were utilizing our shelter and other housing services because the option of leaving everything behind at an older age is very intimidating. These facilities usually cater to a younger population, have plenty of younger children on-site, and are limited in what medical support they can offer.
Thankfully in the past 4 years, with the help of the Cambridge Housing Authority, the City of Cambridge, and the Massachusetts Office of Victim Assistance (MOVA), we were fortunate enough to expand our work and assist those experiencing domestic violence in our own community (Cambridge) with the opening of the Community Program. Transition House looks at domestic violence beyond what happens to a (younger) heterosexual couple in an intimate relationship. Our work recognizes that domestic violence happens between family members living in the same home (like father and daughter; mother and son). We also assist the GLBTQI community and have housed male and transgender victims of domestic violence in our programs. Our work around elder abuse expanded around the same time we opened the Community Program. We started attending workshops that brought us together with those that work with elders like Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services and brainstormed how we can be of help to elders experiencing all forms of domestic violence and abuse. It was also about 4 years ago that Transition House started a very close collaborative relationship with the Cambridge Council on Aging and the Senior Center. Through this collaboration, we presented workshops on domestic violence to both Senior Center staff and participants. The outreach work and trainings started to grow partnerships. We started getting more referrals to assist elders experiencing domestic violence and offering creative ways to assist those that struggle. We are proud to collaborate around safety planning, risk assessment, obtaining restraining orders and accessing creative housing options (such as emergency vouchers that are an option for victims of domestic violence). Our services are voluntary and confidential. We understand how difficult and scary it is for someone (especially if elderly) to disconnect from an abusive partner, family member or even care-taker. We understand and try and tackle all types of abuse, including financial, emotional and sexual abuse. We have seen elders not have access to their medication, appropriate clothing, and medical care. We have to look beyond physical abuse to understand that someone is experiencing domestic violence. Financial abuse and isolation are so very common with elders. The more fragile and limited in mobility they are, the more we fear that they have no access to alternative, safer living options. Thankfully, through a recent grant from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, we will be able to grow our services and offer more direct advocacy and counseling to elder victims of domestic violence.
What drew you to the Cambridge Elder Abuse Prevention Coalition?
We see and understand that baby boomers are aging. I have heard it referred to as the “silver tsunami” about to flood all of the service providers. In my mind, every domestic violence agency needs to be at the table working together with providers to ensure that elders get the appropriate care and protection they need. In some cases, it’s only when a care provider enters the home that the big secret of domestic violence is finally brought to the surface. It could be that after 30-40 years of domestic violence, there is someone finally coming in and seeing what is truly happening in the home and who can offer safer options. I greatly enjoy being part of the coalition and it enables me to network and reach out to so many providers all working with the same goal.
What do you think is the best way to prevent elder abuse/intimate partner abuse in later life?
I think we should collaborate with as many providers as possible on increasing outreach and awareness that domestic violence does not stop as we age. In some cases, it increases with age, and in others, it just takes on different forms and facets. I also hope we can put together materials that are targeted to elders – how many posters about domestic violence have you ever seen include an image of an older adult? This material should be targeted to raise awareness that elder abuse/intimate partner abuse exists and what it can look like, as well as, offering options to those already struggling with this kind of abuse.
Is there anything else you would like to add about yourself or your work?
I find it a great privilege to work in this field. I greatly admire people’s courage when leaving everything behind. I am proud to be part of an agency that is able to offer flexible options for those that want to make a change or break away from domestic violence. In many cases, people are leaving a person that they may still love. Nothing is simple – domestic violence impacts so many parts of a person’s life so we should not judge those that choose to stay. I also greatly enjoy the spirit of Cambridge in knocking down silos and working together to find safety and peace for those that struggle with elder/intimate partner abuse.
IF YOU NEED ASSISTANCE WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE OR JUST HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT AN UNSAFE OR CONCERNING RELATIONSHIP PLEASE CONTACT THE TRANSITION HOUSE COMMUNITY PROGRAM: 617-868-1650 EXT. 1010.