It’s hard to miss headlines about Maine’s aging population and what it means for the future of our state. What we don’t hear about as often is the domestic and sexual violence that many of Maine’s older residents experience.
The research is difficult to come by because, whereas elder abuse is already significantly underreported, domestic and sexual violence experienced by older adults is even more so. We do, however, know that about 90 percent of elder abuse is perpetrated by a family member of the victim — with adult children and spouses being the most frequent offenders.
We also know that different types of abuse often overlap with one another. For instance, when someone is experiencing financial exploitation, they may also be suffering from the perpetration of other abuse. Older adults who suffer from abuse are three times more likely to die within the next decade than adults of the same age who are not being mistreated.
This outcome isn’t inevitable. When we raise awareness of issues like elder abuse, it can be difficult to figure out what to do next. But Mainers are known for helping one another when help is needed, and there are steps we can all take to prevent elder abuse in our communities.
- Check on your neighbors. It can be easy to say to yourself, “That seems funny, but it’s none of my business.” But when it comes to suspected abuse, it is on all of us to respond. Many victims want help, but they may not know how to get it or what might be available to them. Many are just waiting to be asked. Find a time that is private and safe, and ask questions like, “How have you been lately?” or “Are you doing okay?” Listen for coded disclosures and look for red flags because like many other victims of abuse, older adults may not come out and say they are being abused.
- Have patience. Many victims of domestic and sexual violence are reluctant to disclose their experience of abuse, even when they are asked. For elders this may be even more true. It can be very difficult to admit that one’s child, spouse or caregiver is causing one harm. Older victims of violence may have been experiencing the abuse for many years, or even decades. Even if that person isn’t ready to disclose what is happening, it is important for them to know that someone cares about their welfare and is there to support them.
- Question your assumptions. We often don’t associate the image of an older adult with domestic or sexual violence. We may think that these types of crimes only happen to younger people, or we have a hard time picturing a long-time marriage as anything but picturesque and happy. It is important that we acknowledge that domestic and sexual violence occurs across the lifespan and that older adults can indeed experience — and perpetrate — these crimes.
- Pick up the phone. With several different 1-800 numbers floating around, it can be hard to figure out the right organization or agency to call when help is needed. Members of the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention have agreed that the important thing is to reach out; if you dial one of these organizations and they’re not the right folks to call, you will be referred to the people who can help. Maine’s domestic violence resource centers and sexual assault support centers are available 24/7 for people with questions about domestic and sexual violence — whether you yourself need help or you are worried for someone you care about. You can call the domestic violence helpline at 1-866-834-4357 and/or the sexual assault crisis and support line at 1-800-871-7741. Even if you’re not sure what you’re seeing or experiencing is abuse, it never hurts to pick up the phone and talk with someone.
- Know the resources. There are many organizations working together in Maine to end elder abuse. Become familiar with what they do and how they might be able to help. Maine’s domestic violence resource centers and sexual assault support centers have an array of services beyond their hotlines that can be helpful, and they can connect callers with other community resources as well.
Maine’s aging population is an important part of our state’s future, and their needs demand significant attention. Like all Mainers, elders deserve to live safe lives, free from abuse, violence and coercion. Together we can make sure that some of our most vulnerable citizens get the care and protection they deserve, but it will take a community to get there.