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Recognizing the Emergency Housing & Shelter Needs of Older Survivors on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day

June 14, 2017

By: Ashley Slye, Senior Transitional Housing Specialist, NNEDV & Bonnie Brandl, Director, National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life (NCALL)

On June 15, 2017, communities across the United States and around the world recognize World Elder Abuse Awareness Day: an international observance held each year to bring visibility to interpersonal violence experienced by older adults. A serious public health and human rights issue that too often goes ignored, elder abuse can include physical, psychological, or sexual abuse; neglect; and financial exploitation. Since approximately two-thirds of older victims are female, elder abuse is a subset of violence against women. For example, the most extensive national study to-date found that one in ten community-residing older adults reported experiencing at least one form of abuse the previous year—and the majority of cases of physical violence involved female victims with spouses as perpetrators. In addition to being intimate partners, perpetrators of abuse in later life are likely to be family members, paid and unpaid caregivers, and other persons in a relationship where the victim and society expect compassion and caring. Even when the abuser is not an intimate partner, the dynamics of power and control commonly experienced by younger victims and other forms of abuse may be present.

Domestic violence advocates throughout the country are therefore well-positioned to provide older survivors of abuse with critical trauma-informed services and support, from safety planning, to emergency shelter and transitional housing. Many local programs are doing important work to ensure that survivors across the lifespan benefit from their expertise, as the most recent NNEDV Domestic Violence Counts Census shows that 81 percent of domestic violence shelters provided advocacy and services for older victims throughout the year in 2016. Still, we know from our work with advocates and listening to older survivors that common challenges exist for victims aged 50 and older in accessing domestic violence programs—particularly when it comes to securing accessible emergency shelter and transitional housing. Some obstacles older survivors experience include:

  • Misalignment between the older survivors’ needs and traditional safety planning: For example, strategies to end all contact with the abuser may not resonate with an older victim who wants to maintain a relationship with the person who is harming them. Often older victims want the abuse to end but they want to safely, and sometimes in a supervised setting, continue some form of contact with a partner of many years, adult child, grandchild, or other family members.
  • True peer advocacy for older adults who find they are the only survivor of their age group in the program: Adjusting to living with younger women and children can be difficult for older survivors. Some older victims feel invisible or that their unique needs, such as accessing resources like Social Security or Medicare, are not addressed or advocates do not have the tools to address their needs.
  • Accessibility: Shelters or communal transitional housing programs with bunk beds, narrow doors and walkways limiting access for persons using walkers or wheelchairs, inconvenient or unavailable ramps or elevators, and no bars in showers/raised toilets may not be accessible for persons with limited mobility.
  • Restrictive policies: The ability to live independently is often an eligibility requirement of some domestic violence shelters or transitional housing programs. As a result, persons with dementia or other cognitive limitations as well as older victims who require personal attendants and/or assistance with activities of daily living may be told they are ineligible for services and referred elsewhere.

Despite these and other challenges, domestic violence programs can modify their practices and policies to better support older survivors. To support your efforts, NCALL is releasing a new resource on June 15, offering domestic violence advocates practical tips and strategies on how to enhance your response to and work with older survivors. The Abuse in Later Life Education Series for Advocates is a series of 13 training modules, each consisting of an instructional video clip featuring national experts on abuse in later life walking through key topics advocates encounter in serving older survivors. Each module explores the themes highlighted in NCALL’s toolkit, Working with Older Survivors of Abuse: A Framework for Advocates, such as domestic and sexual violence in later life, victim-defined advocacy, mandatory reporting, and elder-informed victim services.

Along with NCALL, NNEDV is committed to supporting domestic violence programs nationwide as they provide safety, healing, and recognition of the inherent dignity of survivors across the lifespan. We are excited by this new resource, which will equip advocates with concrete examples, tips, and encouragement for reimagining how simple modifications of their programs and policies can go a long way towards the meaningful inclusion of older survivors. On this World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, it is vital that our field acknowledges the intersection of age with gender-based violence—alongside other factors, such as race, ethnicity, religion, disability, socioeconomic status, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Let us work together to support survivors in all of their diversity.

To learn more about the resources from the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life, visit: