We've heard of children and caregivers physically exploiting seniors, but it turns out that abuse between partners and spouses is also substantial--and a largely hidden problem.
Advocates say society's understanding of the problem is where domestic and child abuse was 35 years ago. The abuse doesn't necessarily end as people age -- it's just not reported.
The year was 1946. The world was no longer at war, but Mabel's battle was just beginning.
Mabel was 20, living in a small, southwestern Minnesota town near the South Dakota border when she married.
In public, he shined with charm, but at home, he berated her with sarcasm and threats, and forcefully grabbed her. After her two children were born, she tried to shield them and fight back. It never ended well.
"That was hard on me because I'd walk around with a black eye or wreck my glasses," Mabel said. "Where we lived, nobody asked."
Mabel said she would have gotten her marriage anulled, had she known about that option at the time. She went to see her local priest, but said her husband charmed him as well.
“I would've left a long time ago if I'd had some help.”Mabel
Seeing no way out, she tried to manage the abuse -- for 61 years.
"He'd get so angry his eyes would change color," she said. "I swear they'd change color. He'd threaten me by choking me, and then look at me with those spooky eyes. It would scare me."
Mabel is now 83. Her husband last choked her about two years ago and it was then that Mabel called her daughter in Minnesota for help.
Her daughter created a safety plan that enlisted about a dozen family members. Some kept Mabel's husband occupied and out of the house for a day, while others helped Mabel get on a plane to Minnesota.
Mabel's husband tried to get her back by sending flowers and apologizing. Around the same time, he became ill with brain tumors and died last summer.
Today Mabel is safe, living in her own home in Rochester, having morning coffee and muffins with her daughter at the kitchen table.
"I would've left a long time ago if I'd had some help, but he was so into everything I did," Mabel said. "He watched me like a hawk. He would've killed me before I went to anyone in our area for help. He had guns. ... He had the guns right along the table."
Not an uncommon problem
Mabel is unique because she chose to tell her story, although she asked that we not use her real name because of the stigma attached to her situation.
Those who help domestic abuse victims say the older the victim, the less likely they are to seek help. Most often, it's a friend, a neighbor, or an adult child that seeks help for them.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice released the results of a telephone survey of 8,500 respondents aged 60 and over. It found more than half of all physical abuse came from spouses or partners; less than one-third of them reported the abuse to police.
The overall rate of reported physical abuse was less than 2 percent but prosecutors, police, and advocates say the numbers are much higher. Even the study's authors said the results were limited because self-reporting was "notoriously under-reported" in the age group.
There are several reasons why. The movement against domestic and child abuse is only about 35 years old. Before that, many people grew up with the notion that what happens in the home is private.
Moreover, older women grew up at a time when women were far more dependent on their partners. They worry that if they report their spouse's abuse, they'll have nowhere to go and will end up in a nursing home.
Why aren't people speaking up?
Sometimes people just aren't asking the right questions, said Ann Turner, an aging and disabilities specialist for the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life.
"These individuals grew up at a time when we weren't talking about these problems, and they may not have langugage such as domestic violence or sexual abuse," said Turner. "So you might want to think about changing your language and talking like, 'Is someone in your home controlling what you do? Is someone hurting you?'"
Researchers say they're seeing three major kinds of abuse among older couples -- abuse that continues throughout a relationship; abuse that starts with the onset of an illness; and abuse from a new partner after a longtime spouse dies. In all types, control is the name of the game.
Char Thompson, who co-founded the Minnesota Network on Abuse in Later Life, said abuse in a new marriage can be difficult to detect, particularly if the first marriage had no abuse.
"He has to go with her every place she goes," Thompson said. "'Isn't it nice that they're so close; Isn't it nice that he always takes her,' without anyone asking, 'Did you want to go any place alone?'"
Thompson said it's not on anyone's radar, and victims often won't tell their children because they're too ashamed.
"How do I tell my kids? They'll think, 'How dumb were you?' It's not that the kids are going to think she's dumb, they would come to her support right away. It's that she thinks that herself," said Thompson. "'At my age, why wasn't I smart enough to see what was going on? Now I'll just have to put up with it.'"
Thompson said no one should put up with it. Her organization in St. Paul specializes in helping older victims access all kinds of help, including support groups for those age 60 and over. Anyone in Minnesota can call a 800 number and be connected with help locally.
Assistant City Attorney Tara Patet, who prosecutes these kinds of cases, said Minnesota is getting better in terms of how officials respond to this kind of abuse. In mid-June, she and representatives from several agencies held a training session in St. Paul through a federal grant on elder abuse.
"Getting the word out to first responders to recognize the signs of elder abuse and investigate these kinds of cases -- that's an important first step," said Patet.
Police, too, have evolved, said Sgt. Ann Bebeau of the St. Paul Police Department's elder abuse unit, which began only a year ago. Bebeau said now police will file charges against an abuser even if the victim changes his or her mind later.
Bebeau said that's very different from decades ago, when police would drop charges if the victim wanted, or would just tell an abuser to cool off.
Although hard to find, help is available
While that approach has changed, some things have not.
"We don't have shelter facilities out there that can help elderly people that may have physical problems and need medical care," Bebeau said. "Or if you find a shelter, they don't have available beds."
Older people may not feel comfortable among victims in their 20s who have young children. They also may have physical problems that limit walking.
There is one place in Minnesota that offers some shelter equipped for seniors--Cornerstone, in Bloomington. The agency's Cheryl Kolb-Untinen said the center has five two-bedroom apartments, and has ramp and elevator accessibility.
Kolb-Untinen said nothing should stop anyone from seeking help, regardless of age.
"A lot of times people think, 'If I were going to leave I would've done that 20 years ago,' and I hear some self-blame going on when they're saying something like that. I really don't think it's ever too late," said Kolb-Untinen. Meanwhile, even though Mabel can't see very well and is tethered to an oxygen tank, the end of her abuse has been a sigh of relief.
"I'm getting stronger every day that I stay home and rest, and get myself to being me because I just hid myself for so long," said Mabel. "If I could get to be like I was. In fact, when I'm here by myself and they have some of that music on -- Fred Astaire dancing and singing, I used to do that as a teenager. Seeing it on TV just reminds me that I feel so good."
In about 20 years, when all the baby boomers reach the senior ranks, the U.S. Census bureau says there will be about 72 million persons age 65 and over; that's more than twice the number in 2000. As a result, the sheer number of older adults in abusive relationships is sure to rise as well.
Signs of domestic abuse for older persons:
- - Isolation/withdrawal from friends and family
- - Visible but unexplained injuries: bruises/abrasions/burns
- - Repeated accidental injuries and vague complaints
- - Depression
- - Suicidal thoughts
- - Unexplained weight loss or gain
- - Poorly groomed
- - Pain: abdominal, pelvic, headaches
- - Disturbance in sleep pattern: insomnia, fatigue, excessive sleep
- Senior LinkAge Line: 1-800-333-2433
- Minnesota Domestic Violence Crisis Line: 1-866-223-1111
- If not in Minnesota, the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)