Thursday, 3 December 2015

Invisible: Older women’s experiences of domestic violence and abuse (3 December 2015)

Julie McGarry

In 1983 Barbara McDonald and Cynthia Rich published a collection of essays under the title Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism. This groundbreaking text described the experience of growing older for women and included personal narratives of ‘otherness’, a detailed examination of the attitude of society towards ageing and the invisibility of older women generally within the wider discourse. Though not centrally concerned with violence against women (VAW), the core tenets of this text, around the concept of ageing, marginalisation and invisibility, clearly has resonance for older women who have experienced domestic violence and abuse (DVA).

The previous blogs in this JAN interactive series have highlighted the significant impact that DVA exerts on the lives and health of those affected. However, survivors of DVA do not form a homogeneous group and the experiences of DVA for older women are significantly different to their younger counterparts. For example, the long term effects of abuse for older women as survivors of DVA may manifest in the form of physical disability or mental health issues in later life. This is because the impact of DVA does not automatically stop once the abuse itself has ceased. Practically, older women may have caring responsibilities which prevent them from leaving an abusive relationship or they may not know how or where to access the requisite specialist support and services (McGarry, et al. 2011).

Fundamentally, however, current service provision is not aligned to the particular needs of older women and health and social care professionals may not recognise the inherent complexities of DVA in later life or consider DVA to be an issue for older women. The apparent invisibility of older women within the context of DVA service provision has been highlighted by a number of commentators and include the ‘ageist assumptions’ or ‘misconceptions about ageing’ (Leisey, et al. 2009) which limit older women’s access to appropriate DVA services. For example, the blurring of the boundaries between DVA and elder abuse by professionals effectively ignores the particular difficulties that may face older women.  The  presumption of elder abuse largely ignores issues of power and gender and as such, and does not acknowledge the significance of the underlying complexities surrounding ‘the nature of power relations within abusive relationships in later life’ (Penhale 1999).     

Penhale & Goreham (2015) have recently used the term ‘triple jeopardy’ to encapsulate the experience of DVA within the wider context of ageing for women and this is defined as follows:

  • To be old is to be marginalised (single)
  • To be old and female is to be marginalised (double)
  • To be old and female and abused is to be marginalised (triple)

Reflecting on McDonald and Rich’s work over three decades after Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism was first published, alongside commentators such as Penhale & Goreham and others, it is clear that the issue of invisibility for older women remains. Within the context of DVA It is vital therefore, that health and social care professionals, alongside specialist and support agencies, are cognisant of the existence and complexity of DVA in later life and to challenge existing assumptions so that services and support for older women survivors of DVA can be developed effectively.   


Leisey, M., Kupstas, P., Cooper, A. (2009) Domestic violence in the second half of life. Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect. 21: 141-155

McDonald, B & Rich, C (1983) Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism. Spinsters Ink Books.

McGarry J, Simpson C, Hinsliff-Smith K (2011) The impact of domestic abuse on the health of older women: a review of the literature Health and Social Care in the Community. 19(1), 3-14
Penhale B. (1999) Bruises on the soul: older women, domestic violence and elder abuse. Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect 11 (1), 122.

Penhale, B & Goreham, B (accessed presentation November 2015)

Author's Profile

Julie McGarry is Associate Professor, School of Health Sciences, University of Nottingham and Chair of the Domestic Violence and Abuse Integrated Research Group (Social Futures in Mental Health Centre of Excellence, Institute of Mental Health, Nottingham).  Her clinical background is in adult and mental health nursing predominantly working with vulnerable adults across a range of settings. Julie’s education and research expertise centres on domestic violence and abuse and she has published and presented widely in this field. Research to date includes exploring older women’s experiences of intimate partner violence, service provision for older people who have experienced domestic and family abuse and evaluation of the domestic abuse nurse specialist role. Julie is currently developing a collaborative education resource exploring older women’s narratives of abuse and the impact on mental health though the use of an arts based approach.   

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