Supporting the needs of older victims of domestic abuse

A chance encounter six years ago at a refuge run by Churches Housing Association of Dudley and District (CHADD) led its CEO Anna Walsh to rethink the way it responded to older victims of domestic abuse.

83-year-old, Janet (not her real name) had recently moved into the refuge after leaving her abusive husband after more than 60 years of marriage. They had children and grandchildren together, but Janet had finally had enough.

She told Anna that she just wanted to spend her remaining years living in peace but found the refuge didn’t really meet her needs because it catered for younger women with their children. She felt isolated, lonely and unable to fit in.

The meeting led Anna to think more broadly about the needs of Dudley’s ageing demographic and to consider the experiences of older victims of domestic abuse in the area.

In response CHADD recruited its first frontline support worker for older victims (known as IDVAs – independent domestic violence advocate) and dedicated one of its properties in one of their sheltered housing schemes to house older domestic abuse survivors.

Janet was one of the first people to move into the flats and she says it entirely transformed her life.

Domestic abuse training was provided to a couple of the tenants in the sheltered scheme so they could act as support buddies to each survivor who moved in.

Four years down the line there are now two specialist IDVAs and two flats for older victims, and they have developed a specialist community outreach service. In total CHADD has helped 125 older survivors in both refuge and outreach-based services. Over the last few years, the organisation has seen a 30 per cent rise in calls from older women and an 50 per cent increase in calls from older men.

Anna said: “The more we worked with older survivors the more we realised that professionals weren’t joining the dots about what was happening for victims over the age of 55.

“One woman in her 60s told us that she kept falling and had to keep going into hospital but not one person asked her what was happening despite lots of agency involvement – it was just assumed she was frail with her mobility. It turned out the reason she kept falling was because her husband was pushing her down the stairs,”

In response CHADD has rolled out specialist free training to more than 2000 people in health settings, churches, community groups and for adult social care professionals across the borough of Dudley so they can spot domestic abuse in older people.

“We have seen different types of domestic abuse in older victims: one is abuse in long standing relationships; one is abuse in new relationships when victims are encountering perpetrators for the first time and a quarter of cases which involve abuse of parents by their children or adolescents,” Anna said. 

Older survivors face specific challenges when it comes to domestic abuse. Many will also have concerns about the perpetrator’s need for care and support, especially where the survivor may have been a carer in the home. 

Financial and economic ties to the perpetrator can be complicated and older survivors worry a lot about incurring debt and money problems.  They are more likely to be homeowners and that adds to the complexity.  Being able to offer dispersed rental accommodation as rent free removed a significant barrier.

Loneliness and isolation are big issues and for cases involving an adult child as the abuse perpetrator, particularly where the older person was sharing their home with them, and might be living with a long-term health condition.

Older survivors face additional challenges in accessing specialist help and tend to rely on more traditional routes.  Since the pandemic and various lockdowns, services have relied more on virtual and digital services which can exclude older victims or create reluctance to engage in that way.

CHADD supports over 1200 people and 700 of those have been impacted by domestic abuse.

Anna said that CHADD would love to do more and has plans to expand its support of domestic abuse victims who are over the age of 55. It plans to expand the training and awareness offer to partners and agencies, train more peer ‘buddies’ to support survivors and look at acquiring additional properties subject to funding.

Janet is now 87 and is living very happily free from abuse. Just recently she had been in contact to tell CHADD she had finally found the peace she was looking for.  Her experience had a huge impact on Anna and the rest of the CHADD staff. It shone a light on the hidden abuse of older victims and the team at CHADD didn’t look away.