Center for Hope & Safety received a hotline call from a woman who’d been married for 50 years and abused throughout her entire marriage. She was still married. She had no intention of leaving her husband; she just needed someone to talk to. A rabbi reported to us that an elderly woman told him she stayed with her abusive husband because, “I survived the Holocaust; I thought I should survive my marriage.”

As Baby Boomers enter their golden years, many having come of age through the civil rights, feminist, and domestic violence movements, there may be fewer anecdotal stories of women staying in abusive marriages for 50 or 60 years. (Let’s face it, fewer and fewer couples stay in any marriage for 50, 60, or 70 years anymore; that whole “until death do us part” thing was invented when the average age of death was like 48, meaning we probably barely hung on to celebrate our Silver Anniversary, never mind gold or beyond; but I digress). 

As we age, we do become more vulnerable to abuse. What starts with the culture’s reverence for youth and the sometimes subtle ageism directed toward the older among us, can escalate to out and out mistreatment and/or violence directed at an elder. Much of what we know of as “elder abuse” is carried out by caregivers who can include spouses and, increasingly, adult children, other family members, and residential staff of institutions. 

Research indicates that more than 1 in 10 elders may experience some type of abuse, but only 1 in 23 cases are reported. This means that very few seniors who have been abused get the help they need. The Senate Special Committee on Aging estimates that as many as 5 million elderly persons are victims of abuse each year.

The National Center on Elder Abuse within the Administration on Aging states:Elder abuse can affect people of all ethnic backgrounds and social status and can affect both men and women. The following types of abuse are commonly accepted as the major categories of elder mistreatment: 

  • Physical Abuse—Inflicting, or threatening to inflict, physical pain or injury on a vulnerable elder, or depriving them of a basic need.
  • Emotional Abuse—Inflicting mental pain, anguish, or distress on an elder person through verbal or nonverbal acts.
  • Sexual Abuse—Non-consensual sexual contact of any kind, coercing an elder to witness sexual behaviors.
  • Exploitation—Illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets of a vulnerable elder.
  • Neglect—Refusal or failure by those responsible to provide food, shelter, health care, or protection for a vulnerable elder.
  • Abandonment—The desertion of a vulnerable elder by anyone who has assumed the responsibility for care or custody of that person.

Check out a recent Center for Hope & Safety newsletter (Spring 2013) on this topic:                                                                         “At 71, Debbie has sparkling blue eyes and is full of life, despite the pain caused by spinal stenosis, an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal. She uses a walker to get around, but on many days she is laid up in bed and must depend on another person to do things for her. 

On most days that person has been her single, 42-year-old daughter, who lives with her in a one-bedroom, second floor apartment. But things between mother and daughter don’t always go well.

“Our conversations sometimes end up in screaming matches,” says Debbie, “and we don’t talk for days. When that happens, I have no one to assist me physically, go to the drugstore for my prescriptions, or do whatever else I need.  One day the verbal abuse was so bad I knew I had to get out of here, so I called the Center for Hope & Safety hot line.” She knew about Center for Hope & Safety because it had been listed in a county booklet of services for senior citizens.

As it happens, Center for Hope & Safety had recently expanded its mission by launching a new program of Assistance to the Elderly and Disabled (AED). The program offers short-term help for elderly (age 60 and older) and physically disabled (age 18 and older) persons who are unable to remain in their present living situation because of abuse or neglect by a spouse, partner, other household or family member, or caregiver.  Simply put, AED gives clients an opportunity to remove themselves from an abusive situation and to find residential placement that maximizes their ability to live safely and independently. 

For Debbie, the AED program offered just what she needed. When she called Center for Hope & Safety for help, she heard back right away from Irena Jovanova Dimitroski, Director of Follow-Up Services. Irena then got in touch with Visiting Homemaker Home Health Aide Services of Bergen County and arranged for an aide to come in 5 days a week to run errands and assist her with showering for Debbie. Irena also set up a number of in-house counseling sessions. This has helped reduce the number of mother-daughter fights, and the disagreements that do occur are less severe.  To solve the problem more conclusively, Irena is helping Debbie complete applications to move to an assisted living facility.   

“I can’t say enough about Irena,” says Debbie. “She’s been to see me many times, calls me frequently, and is professional, caring, thorough, and funny. When you’re talking to her, you don’t feel like you’re being chastised. At one point I mentioned that I had been looking through catalogues for clothes. The next day she showed up with a robe, pajamas, slippers, and some tops that I really needed and liked. That’s how caring she is.”

To help AED clients like Debbie, with funding from the Bergen County Prosecutors Office, Center for Hope & Safety has contracts with a number of local agencies, including Visiting Homemaker Home Health Aide Service of Bergen County, Care One at the Cupola (assisted living), and the Ramada Inn in Rochelle Park. To further the capability of clients to live safely and independently, Center for Hope & Safety collaborates with other local agencies and programs to determine the best case plan for the individual.

 Irena explained, “People don’t always think of an elderly or physically disabled person as someone who fits the ‘typical’ picture of a battered woman.  Due to their physical difficulties, this population faces even greater challenges in accessing help.” For more information on AED, contact Irena Jovanova Dimitroski, Director of Follow-Up Services, or Beatriz Wawra, Director of Crisis Services, at 201-836-1075.

It behooves us all to care about these folks, especially since we are all headed in that direction; there is no going back, no fountain of youth. In the end, abuse is abuse; oppression is oppression, no matter the target. 

By Lil Corcoran Associate Director, Center for Hope & Safety and Jeff Forster, Board of Trustees