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A growing number of older women are victims of domestic violence

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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month with an emphasis on getting victims the help they need — which could very well save their lives.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in three American women are physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.

“And often they experience repeat violence from more than one partner; I think it’s a combination of things,” says Bethany Backes, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, in both the Department of Criminal Justice and School of Social Work. “So while it’s very much a generational thing, it’s only been in the past 20 to 30 years that we really started paying more attention to domestic violence.”

She adds that a growing trend of late is older women in abusive relationships.

“It might have been happening over years, and they might have seen in it their parents’ relationship as well,” Backes said. “So it’s something that they may not realize it’s not normal. And so, that’s one issue, the generational differences.”

According to the U.S. Census, the nation’s 65 and older population has grown rapidly over the last decade. One in five Floridians is 65 or over. Another issue concerning older victims is the complexity and compounding traumas because of repeated abuse, that could have spread over decades, and include different types of cruelty.

“They may be very isolated and not know how to get help, or just think that’s how a normal relationship looks like,” said Backes. “One of the things we’ve learned in working with older women getting them alone to talk to them more; looking at body language, seeing if they’ve been isolated, trying to have someone go to the house more often to just check in with them, and build some rapport and relationship.”

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University of Central Florida
Dr. Bethany Backes

One of the messages being conveyed to domestic violence victims of all ages, says Backes, is that help is out there, available, and within their reach.

“That could be anything from calling a hotline, to going onsite to receive direct services, or getting assistance with legal items,” she said. “Also be calling the police to assist with a dispute that might be happening, all the way to accessing housing and other resources for families.”

Another challenge to reaching victims is meeting them where they’re at. Backes says some of them don’t want to leave home and don’t necessarily want their partners, although violent, to get into trouble or be arrested.

“A lot of times we think of elder abuse, and we don’t necessarily think of elder abuse being perpetrated by an intimate partner,” Backes said. “But there is a lot of violence being perpetrated by an intimate partner — they just want it to stop. So trying to get a better understanding of that person, their history, and what they actually need or want is an important part of it.”

As with just about everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting, and some say exacerbating, the problem of domestic violence greatly says Backes, by further isolating communities.

“You have less access to people who might be able to check in with you; you might be at home more often with your partner,” said says. “We’ve definitely seen increases in domestic violence severity and cause in some of our other work as well across the population — including older women.”

One area that doesn’t appear to be studied very much, if at all, is how deepening political divisions could play a role in domestic violence. UCF’s Bethany Backes says political disagreements within families may also have another impact.

“Children might be less likely to check on their parents; or more isolation from friends, as people kind of start to break relationships due to political divide.”

Another issue out there is the homicide rate for older women has gone up over the past five years, especially by an intimate partner.

“That could be related to firearm access; it could also be related to other stressors that may be happening within their family unit,” Backes said. “There’s a National Domestic Violence Hotline, and the number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).”

In part two, we come back closer to home and check in with Favor House of Pensacola, the Panhandle’s preeminent organization for battered women.