Recently, I attended a training on domestic violence and elder abuse hosted by the Transition House and the Cambridge Council on Aging in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We watched a video about an elderly domestic violence survivor, “Mary,” whose husband was physically abusive. Mary attempted to leave the life-threatening situation on more than one occasion. However, due to the failure of various authorities, she was left to fend for herself. The police officers who investigated did not believe her story; rather they scrutinized Mary’s character and inquired, “What she did wrong to instigate the quarrel”. Victim-blaming is a common thread that runs deep with elder abuse victims because of their frequent inability to properly recollect the step-by-step event. Mary’s church officials denied that the violence was occurring due to her spouse’s positive reputation in the community. On one occasion, she was hospitalized because of the severity of the abuse and a social worker disclosed Mary’s whereabouts to her spouse, even though she had a restraining order in effect. The social worker believed Mary was disillusioned due to the nature of her medications and head trauma. Mary is only a survivor now because her spouse committed suicide, and she is no longer subject to his wrath.
Unfortunately, this image of a broken system failing to properly serve and protect an elder in a domestic violence situation is not unique to Mary. In fact, elders must jump through many hurdles to access proper attention and “these systemic failures make it especially hard for victims to get justice — and even easier for perpetrators to get away with their crimes”.  This is because like Mary, many elders are not empowered, but rather are ignored and distrusted. Elders are quickly losing trust in the systems meant to care for them because they are scrutinized when they are being vulnerable and truthful.
The reality is the aging process leaves elders at a greater risk of suffering from cognitive decline and/ or social isolation which may affect the way they interact with others or express themselves. Elders may require assistance, but are often left feeling disappointed because of a lack of communication where they must repeat themselves on replay until someone listens, and helps. As a result, victims of elder abuse may shy away from asking for help or sharing their stories. Elder abuse victims also battle ageism i.e. elder advocates not believing them because of perceived cognitive decline, which causes them to feel re-victimized. This creates a divide between elders and authorities because elders start to mistrust the same representatives who are meant to protect and assist them.
To make matters worse, elders sometimes choose not to admit their abuse because of their fear that authorities or others will take over. Some elder advocates or other family members may overreact with a sense of paternalism i.e. the helper makes decisions about “what is best” for the elder. This undermines the elder’s autonomy and could lead to a loss of independence. This unbridled power over the elder builds an atmosphere where elders are re-victimized over and over again. Elders may not report their abuse because they fear that they will lose their sense of power once again, first as a victim of abuse and second as a victim of confinement. As my supervisor told me on my first day of work, “elder justice is preserving an elder’s right to live autonomously – free from abuse and neglect”. That is how we bring justice to elders, and create survivors. We work with elders, and not merely for them. We remember that elders are individuals, not just casework.