Sexual assault in later life is incomprehensible to most of us and yet is a reality we must react to as a caring community. What does later life mean? Routinely for many, later life means “older than me.”
Abuse in later life refers to violence that occurs at age 50 or older. The mere thought of sexual violence in later life causes us to pause and ask, “How can that be possible?” The answer is that sexual violence does not discriminate by age, gender, orientation, height, weight, religion, race, culture or even disability.
We are unique in our individuality. Some of us may have a chronic illness and or disability; others are active and healthy. Aging is a process, not a disease, and being older is part of the fabric of who we are in this world.
The possibility of sexual assault in later life challenges the myths and stereotypes of growing old in today’s environment. Our reactions may become even stronger if we think about the possibility of our grandparents, parents, friends, and neighbors as victims.
We know that sexual victimization of vulnerable individuals occurs on a daily basis. Yet, we seem to believe that sexual violence is age specific and can’t happen to older adults.
But it does.
Beginning in 2006 through 2015, a baby boomer turns age 60 every 7.5 seconds resulting in 78 million new seniors, according to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.
The committee also estimates that between 2 and 5 million older adults are abused each year. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Maine is ranked as the oldest state in the nation by median age. Older adults in Maine are not immune to abuse in later life, and we must acknowledge and respond to that reality.
Evidence shows that sexual assault rarely is the sole abuse in an older adult’s experience, yet, there seems to be more recognition of other forms of exploitation and violence in later life. We know that 2 to 4 percent of those abused in later life will have sexual assault as a component within their abuse. Sexual violence is the taboo subject – the last “secret.”
We must break the stereotypes surrounding sexual violence and aging — as they hinder older victims from seeking services. All survivors deserve to be heard and acknowledged regardless of whether the violence occurred today or 60 years ago.
It is imperative that services exist that honor a lifetime of experiences while providing opportunities to facilitate a “safe” disclosure of current or past sexual abuse. We know that, when asked, older adults want to answer the question, and they actively engage in a supportive process that acknowledges their worth and right to support and safety.
Let me be clear: Age does not increase the risk of being abused; the perpetrator is responsible for the abuse. No excuses accepted. Yet, isolation and vulnerability will increase the potential for abuse, particularly if we don’t pay attention to the well-being of all people, especially our older community members.
Many of our greatest teachers are older adults who all have a rich history and, sometimes, a painful past. They live their lives with resiliency and strength in spite of the impact of sexual violence – or any form of violence. If we don’t ask the difficult questions, we give the message to victims, and our communities at large, that we are more comfortable with silence rather than responding and reacting to the reality of abuse in later life.
By listening, we acknowledge their contributions and ongoing value in our world.
By listening, we recognize aging is a process and does not prevent the possibility of sexual violence in later life.
And most importantly, by listening, we show that we believe and honor older adults.
They tell us what we may not want to hear. Yet, how can we not listen? They are the experts; they are inviting us into their lives to share their hidden “secret.” For all victims, especially those who may be the most vulnerable, they deserve for us to show up and speak out.
Susan Hall Dreher is the executive director of Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.