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Lifespan: Sexual Violence Against Adults in Later Life

When a person who is older than 60 experiences unwanted sexual activity, it is always considered sexual violence. Age does not protect someone from sexual assault. It can increase the risk in many ways. Abuse can happen at any point in a person’s life, and may happen many times. Some older adults are not believed when they tell about abuse. This may be because many people do not see older adults as sexual beings. Health problems and disabilities can increase risk and reduce a person’s ability to seek help (Eckert & Sugar, 2008; Teaster & Roberto, 2004). 

Common Factors

Some common signs of sexual abuse in later life include:

  • Bruising or injuries on the person’s body
  • Fear, mistrust, and dramatic changes in behavior
  • Another person sees the abuse happening
  • The older adults tells about the abuse

Barriers to response

Sexual violence against people in later life is underreported. Valuing and believing older adults is an important first step in addressing the issue.  Some challenges to responding include:

  • A person’s fear of further harm 
  • Reluctance to report, especially if perpetrator is a family member
  • Thinking that disclosure is part of dementia and of physical evidence as “normal” markings on an older body (Burgess & Clements, 2006)

Prevalence Statistics for sexual violence in later life:

  • Older adults make up less than five percent of victims who report. Many believe that this crime is highly underreported (Burgess & Clements, 2006). 
  • Most identified older victims are female; however male victims have been reported in almost every study (Burgess, Ramsey-Klawsnik, & Gregorian, 2008; Ramsey-Klawsnik, et al., 2008)
  • In addition, genital injuries occur with more frequency and severity in post-menopausal women than younger rape victims (Poulos & Sheridan, 2008). 
  • Older victims are also more likely to be admitted to a hospital following assault (Eckert & Sugar, 2008).
  • Victims, ranging from age 60 to 100, experienced psychosocial trauma whether or not they could discuss the sexual assault. There was no significant difference between those with and without dementia in post-abuse distress symptoms (Burgess, Ramsey-Klawsnik, & Gregorian, 2008).
  • Sexual abuse of older family members often involves female victims and male perpetrators. (Eckert & Sugar, 2008)

Tools and resources

Considerations for Victims with Cognitive and Communication Disabilities by the NSVRC (2013)

This presentation will help advocates and allied victim service professionals identify some of the ways in which people with communication disabilities may relay messages, both verbally and non-verbally, and will highlight some techniques and technologies that can help bridge the language gap in order to provide quality sexual violence services. (27 minutes) 

Prosecuting Cases of Sexual Violence in Later Life by the NSVRC (2013)

This webinar recording presents information for criminal justice professionals on understanding not only the unique realities of aging and elder abuse but also how to contest stereotypes used to cast doubt on testimony.

Building community collaborations to serve victims of sexual violence in later life by the NSVRC (2014)

  • Part 1: Why collaboration? Karla Vierthaler discusses what she learned while developing a curriculum to cross-train elder protective service workers and rape crisis advocates in Pennsylvania around SVLL.
  • Part 2: Starting a task force Mary Beth Pulsifer discusses the creation and ongoing efforts of the New River Valley Elder Justice Task Force to support victims of SVLL in their community.
  • Part 3: Deepening the conversation Professionals from three agencies talk about how they came together to organize a community colloquium that focused on the sexual rights of older adults.

Maturing Your Services: Advocating for Survivors of Sexual Violence in Later Life by the NSVRC (2013)

This interactive online course is designed to increase advocates’ and other victim service professionals’ capacity for serving victims of sexual violence in later life. Considerations for serving older adult victims are explored in three sections--social, physical, and emotional factors--with opportunities to practice and reflect upon the information. (1 hour)

The Sexual Violence in Later Life Information Packet by the NSVRC (2011)

Sexual violence can affect individuals across the life span, including people in later life. The NSVRC has created a series of new resources related to sexual violence in later life. The Sexual Violence in Later Life Information Packet was developed by Holly Ramsey-Klawsnik, Phd, in conjunction with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The packet includes the following: fact sheet, technical assistance bulletin, technical assistance guide, resource list, annotated bibliography, research brief, and an online collection.

Sexual Violence in Later Life: A Technical Assistance Guide for Health Care Providers by the NSVRC (2013)

The purpose of this guide is to assist physicians, nurses, and other clinical health care providers in meeting their professional obligations in identifying and providing intervention and treatment to older victims of sexual violence. It includes introductory information, such as definitions and a problem statement, as well as scenarios. Additionally, it discusses issues relevant to health care providers, such as practice recommendations, provider responsibilities, gathering patient history, examination, and evidence collection.