Frail, eighty three year old man found at the foot of the stairs by daughter. From the angle of the body and the position of the head he has clearly stumbled at the top of the stairs and fallen head first braking his neck on the way down. Just a very sad and unfortunate accident. Only it wasn’t an accident and he didn’t fall he was pushed. His equally frail elderly wife did it after suffering years of physical and emotional abuse and the daughter who had long suspected what was going on , even though her mother had never said any thing , helped cover up the crime. It’s yet another police procedural drama in which the skills of the modern forensic scientist and the instincts of an experience detective get to the truth. But it does highlight to a wider audience the under reported issue of domestic violence in older couples.
Domestic violence is a growing problem amongst older couples but it is not always recognised or taken seriously. A film produced by Women’s Aid , Do you see her , depicts an older couple hosting a happy family meal and goes on to show the abuse that happens when the children and grand children have gone home.
According to a 2016 report by domestic abuse charity Safe Lives ,an estimated 120,000 women over 65 experience at least one form of abuse. And older victims are less likely to leave an abusive relationship.
Just as social workers have been alerted to the problems of alcohol abuse in older people they are now being helped to recognise the signs of domestic violence. Emotional and physical abuse does not fit with the popular image of an elderly couple enjoying their retirement years and as such can be hidden. Added to which this generation is less likely to report domestic violence whether through feelings of shame or dependency.
Social workers are very aware of the stresses of being a carer and the links between disability and vulnerability. They are on the look out for the signs that a harassed and over burdened carer is failing to cope and aware that as a result of a stroke or head injury the individual may become impatient, frustrated and aggressive and direct this at their partner. However domestic violence in older couples isn’t restricted to those who care for or our cared by a spouse. The relationship may have a history of hidden domestic abuse or it may be that a tendency to controlling and aggressive behaviour has increased since retirement with it loss of status and enforced time alone together.
It may well be the GP , family member or neighbour who picks up the signs of domestic abuse and they will be looking at agencies for help. Social workers are skilled at gaining the trust and confidence of vulnerable people, they can help the abused person take the first step which is to talk about the abuse. With support the elderly person may gain the confidence and means to escape the abusive relationship.
The social work role is two fold, to be aware of the signs of abuse especially where one of the elderly couple is a carer for the other and to be part of a team along side health, housing and voluntary organisations that provide help and support to older people in an abusive relationship.
It would be a terrible tragedy if some elderly people continued to think that death was their only escape from the invisible prison that is domestic violence.
Blair Mcpherson ex social worker, former director author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk