By: Alanna DeLeon, MCASA’s Underserved Populations Fellow
Sexual violence perpetrated against elder adults continues to be a poorly understood and desperately under-researched phenomenon. Sexual violence against adults in later life involves a broad range of contact and non-contact sexual offenses perpetrated against people age 60 and above. Historically, society has held onto the narrative that elder adults cannot be the target of sexually violent crimes and, as a result, society misrepresents elder survivors in the conversation surrounding prevention and service provision. As we work to end sexual violence in Maryland, it is necessary to acknowledge the specific barriers and obstacles faced by elder survivors in order to work towards creating equal treatment and access for all survivors.
Barriers to Healing and Reporting
Elder survivors face a series of unique obstacles when it comes to identifying, reporting, and healing from sexual violence. From a lack of familial and social support, to a higher likelihood of previous trauma, to physical or cognitive impairment, elder adults are have a high risk of vulnerability to perpetrators, and the issue is cyclical. In fact, victims of elder sexual abuse are more likely to experience physical injury related to sexual trauma. The physical trauma, in collaboration with mental health-related trauma symptoms such as PTSD and anxiety, can increase vulnerability and reduce help seeking within this population of survivors., Elder adults may be in the care of another individual or family member, or may be living in a residential care facility, and therefore require dependency on another individual. Because of this, elder adults are more likely to not only know the perpetrator, but also rely on them for their own well-being. In fact, 81% of all perpetrators of elder sexual abuse are primary caregivers. Sexual violence later in life occurs in private homes, community locations, and healthcare facilities1, with nearly 70% of all cases of reported abuse occurring in residential care facilities5. Due to the high volume of familial and caregiver perpetration, elder survivors are more likely to be targeted and less likely to be believed.
Given these obstacles, one can imagine that elder adults face additional fears and challenges when it comes to reporting. Recent studies have shown that only about 30% of victims of elder sexual abuse report the crime to authorities5. As previously mentioned, there is a multitude of reasons as to why this population of survivors often finds reporting sexual abuse both difficult and discouraging. Victims of elder sexual abuse are more likely to experience cognitive impairment disorders, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which can cause memory loss, confusion, and difficulty with communication5. Because of this, elder adults with cognitive impairment disorders are often not believed, or may not be aware that what is happening to them is abuse. Perpetrators often target those who are more vulnerable, such as elder adults, as they know that vulnerable populations are less likely to be believed.
Justice for Elder Survivors of Sexual Abuse
There are always signs to be aware of if you think a loved one is suffering from sexual abuse. Some of the physical warning signs include, but are not limited to: a new emergence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sudden difficulty sitting or walking, pelvic injuries or bruising on inner thighs and around the genital area, anal or genital pain, bleeding or irritation, and torn, bloody, or stained undergarments. Some behavioral indicators include extreme agitation, withdrawal from social interactions, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, inappropriate, aggressive, or unusual sexual behavior, and attempted suicide.5
The population of people aged 65 and older is growing rapidly. In fact, due to the “Baby Boomer Generation,” it is projected that the population of senior citizens in the U.S. will almost double from 2012 to 2020. With this knowledge, we must take action now to protect those who have already been harmed, and prevent future abuse to those most vulnerable. If you would like to learn more about elder sexual abuse, please visit our website. You can also learn more regarding statistics, physical and behavioral signs of abuse, and prevention from the Nursing Home Abuse Center here.
If you, or someone you love, is experiencing elder sexual, physical, emotional, or financial abuse, please contact your local Rape Crisis Center office, or call the Sexual Assault Legal Institute at 301-565-2277.
 National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “Sexual Violence in Later Life,” (2010)
 National Center on Elder Abuse, “What We Do,” https://ncea.acl.gov/whatwedo/research/statistics.html#population
 L.O. Eckert and N.F. Sugar, “Older Victims of Sexual Assault: An Under-Recognized Population,” American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology 198, no. 6 (June 2008)
4 P.B. Teaster and K.A. Roberto, “The Sexual Abuse of Older Adults: APS Cases and Outcomes,” The Gerontologist 44, no. 6 (December 2004)
 “Elder Sexual Abuse,” Nursing Home Abuse Guide, http://www.nursinghomeabuseguide.org/sexual-abuse/
 Holly Ramsey- Klawsnik, “Elder Sexual Abuse within the Family,” Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect 15, no. 1 (September 2008)
 “6 Signs of Elder Abuse in Seniors with Dementia,” Daily Caring, http://dailycaring.com/6-signs-of-elder-abuse-in-seniors-with-dementia/