Improving responses to older women’s experiences of violence

June 15, 2023
Jane Wang

Older women are disproportionately affected by violence. Older women are victims in 58% of family violence cases in Canada[i] and are twice as likely to be victims of intimate partner violence than older men. [ii] In 2021, older women in Ontario had a 12% higher rate of femicide than women aged 18-34.[iii] Typically, the perpetrator is a current or former intimate partner or a male family member like an adult son, son-in-law, or grandson.[iv] These statistics illustrate the significant risk of gender-based violence for women aged 55 and over in their homes and communities.

WomanACT’s Aging, Gender, Equality, and Safety (AGES) project conducted research that engaged with survivors aged 55 years and older to understand better the experiences, needs, and risk factors of older women affected by violence. Survivors shared how aging and gender inequality intersect in many areas of their lives, shaping their risk and experiences of violence.

This blog shares what we heard in our focus groups from older survivors about gender-based violence and key themes from literature to illustrate the experiences of older women affected by violence. These insights aim to increase the knowledge and understanding of services and practitioners to provide age-inclusive wrap-around support for older gender-based violence survivors.

What are the experiences of older women experiencing violence?  

Some researchers advocate for a lifespan approach to understanding violence against older women.[v] A lifespan approach examines the different experiences of violence and power across a women’s lifespan to understand how they interconnect.[vi] Ageism and gender inequality represent significant societal power imbalances that can enable, compound, and perpetuate gender-based violence.[vii] Gender inequality is widely understood as an overarching societal structure whereby individuals are discriminated against based on gender or sexual identity.[viii] Similarly, ageism is a societal construct that perpetuates differential treatment based on age.[ix] Like gender inequality, ageism can show up at the individual level, such as stereotypes about older people as frail or confused, or at the institutional level, such as having systems or programs not designed to meet the needs of older women.[x]

The survivors we spoke with shared their experiences of how ageism and gender inequality compounded to shape their experiences of violence.

Ageism and experiences of gender-based violence  

A couple of AGES participants shared how perpetrators used ageist stereotypes as a tactic of emotional abuse or control. For example, a survivor shared how:

“[the perpetrator] insisted that I have my head examined. I forget what kind of imaging it was. It turned out that I was perfectly normal, there was a slight decrease in a certain area, but that was expected with age. So, I kind of put the fire out of that gaslighting. But there is a tremendous amount of gaslighting going on, and I recognized it years ago that they’re just trying to wear you down.”

This experience illustrates how perpetrators draw upon ageist stereotypes, such as slower cognition, in an attempt to make victims feel bad about themselves and undermine their perception of the abuse.  

Survivors who experience abuse in their older age expressed that the physical changes accompanying aging exacerbated their experience of abuse. For example, they shared how they felt that their age made physical and emotional abuse “more difficult to deal with” and “harder to bounce back” from. Other participants felt that there are “more chances to get hurt” from the abuse in their older years or that the abuse may worsen underlying health issues like diabetes or heart problems.  

The insights from survivors align with findings in academic literature. Research shows that women aged 55 or more who are survivors of intimate partner or family violence experience long-term health effects, such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain[xi], and sexual trauma.[xii] Additionally, changes to their health or financial status, such as a decline in physical or cognitive capacity or retirement, can increase an older survivor’s sense of dependency on those within their immediate social circle, like friends or family relations.[xiii] In short, the physical and societal realities of aging can make experiences of gender-based violence worse and further isolate survivors from seeking help or reporting abuse.  

Ageism within the service system  

Survivors shared their experiences of ageism with services and practitioners. Some participants felt service providers dismissed or downplayed their experiences of abuse because of their age. For example, one participant recalled how her memory of the abuse was questioned because of her age; other participants recounted how service providers told them they were being too sensitive and overreacting.

A common myth participants spoke about was the misperception that older survivors were well-established members of society with access to substantial financial resources or social supports, like friends or co-workers. Survivors believed this misperception contributed to downplaying the seriousness of abuse and led to a lack of urgency in responding to their experiences of violence as an older woman. For example, a participant shared:   

“[Service providers] think that you’re in a good place and they kind of put you behind everybody else. They think, “oh, you’re okay, you don’t need as much help as somebody else.” But they shouldn’t make that judgement not knowing the whole situation. Like my husband took all my money and he has everything under his name, so it’s difficult to think that “oh, she’s ok” when in actual fact, I wasn’t.”

The survivor’s experience illustrates the difference between an ageist stereotype, such as being an established older woman with financial resources, and the lived experience of gender-based violence, which left her economically insecure. Her story illustrates how ageism is a reality within the services and systems from which older survivors seek support.   

What we’ve heard from survivors adds to existing research about systemic ageism for older survivors. Research shows that older adults experience age discrimination from various services and systems, including landlords, healthcare providers, social services, and employers.[xiv] Examples include being denied rental housing because of a perceived incapacity to live independently[xv] or dismissing signs of abuse and trauma as aging.[xvi]  Systemic ageism also appears as a lack of age-inclusive services across sectors, leaving many services unable to respond to older survivors’ health and age-related needs. For example, research consistently highlights the lack of appropriate and affordable housing options for older survivors[xvii], the inability of domestic violence services to provide health and medical care[xviii], and a lack of age-inclusive outreach materials and programs.[xix]

Gender inequality across the lifespan

The survivors we spoke with also shared some of the many ways gender inequality specifically impacted their experiences of violence and prevented them from seeking help. For instance, gender norms about women as caregivers persisted even at later life stages. Some participants shared how they perceived it more difficult to leave or change an abusive relationship because it would be disruptive to their older children. As stated by one participant:

“Personally, I think it’s more difficult being a senior and having to go through it because I feel that adjusting at this stage of my life is very difficult. In my case, I don’t feel as if it’s adjusting just for myself but adjusting for my family unit. So, I have adult children and they too have to adjust. So, it makes it very difficult, and it’s also hard because you’re almost putting the burden on them, you know, because they feel that they need to care for you.”

In the violence against older women literature, studies have shown that some older survivors have a sense of caregiving obligation to their intimate partner, despite the abuse, and may believe that the perpetrator is better off in their care rather than in an institutional setting, like mental health and addictions systems.[xx]

Gendered experiences of economic insecurity also significantly impinge older survivors’ experiences. For instance, older women in Canada are more likely to be living in poverty due to the gender wage gap and gender pension gap. According to Ontario’s Pay Equity Office, Canadian women only make 82 cents in retirement income compared to Canadian men.[xxi] Additionally, the gender wage gap of Canadian women aged 65 and older is 3.9% higher than those aged 35-44.[xxii]

AGES project participants shared how intimate partner violence reduced their economic security over the long term as an outcome of economic abuse and decreased financial independence. According to one participant:

“I also think we were financially dependent on our husbands, a lot of us. I had a part-time job throughout my marriage, but I never had a career. So, I think that makes it harder because you’re financially dependent on your husband.”

It is particularly telling that many services lacked the capacity to improve the financial security of older survivors. One participant shared how difficult it was to get support for the financial abuse she was experiencing:

“There isn’t a single place where you can go to get help for financial abuse. When you tell them, the [service providers] are like “why don’t you have the money?” Well, he’s the one not giving you money.”

It is a clear message from older survivors that improving their economic security was front of mind. Unfortunately, experiences of gender inequality and gender-based violence during their lifespan limits their capacity to build that economic and financial security. It is equally unfortunate that many services are not currently addressing this significant gap.   

How to better support older women experiencing violence?

Services and practitioners can better support older women experiencing violence by being more responsive to older survivors’ intersecting challenges and needs. Unfortunately, existing approaches to elder abuse lack a gendered analysis[xxiii], and responses to violence against women rarely incorporate attention to age and ageism.[xxiv]  Developing responsive and preventative violence against older women and elder abuse strategies and programs must be centered on the experiences, needs, and perspectives of older women survivors of violence.

Our recommendations for creating an inclusive and responsive service system for older women experiencing violence include the following:  

Supporting older women’s leadership

Social and community services need to intentionally empower and engage older women to counter the impacts of ageism. This means engaging older survivors in designing and evaluating programs and services. Intergenerational and peer support opportunities also help older survivors to form social bonds with others experiencing similar situations.

Improving collaboration and accessibility

Services and systems need to be age-inclusive and accessible. This means collaboration and coordination across social and community agencies that work with older women who are survivors, such as health and mental health professionals, gender-based violence services, and senior services or elder abuse agencies. Cross-sectoral collaboration maximizes resources and strengthens programs so that older survivors have wrap-around support for age and trauma-related needs.

Community agencies also need to be more proactive in their outreach strategies and go to where older survivors are, such as senior programs, faith organizations, doctor’s offices, or grocery stores. 

Training and education

Preventing and responding to violence against older women requires sustained public education and training. WomanACT has launched two e-learning micro-lessons to raise awareness and build professional capacity to identify and respond to violence against older women. For more information, check out https://womanact.thinkific.com/.

For more information on violence against older women

Chellapermal, P. (2021). Economic abuse among senior immigrant women. Woman Abuse Council of Toronto. https://womanact.ca/publications/economic-abuse-among-senior-immigrant-women-literature-and-research-report/

The Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses. (2023). Aging without violence. https://www.oaith.ca/oaith-work/aging-without-violence/i-provide-professional-support/vaow-handouts-and-tools.html

Woman Abuse Council of Toronto (2023). Violence against older women infographics. https://womanact.ca/our-work/publications/?issue=54&type=

[i] Conroy, S. & Sutton, D. (2022). Violence against Seniors and their Perceptions of Safety in Canada. Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2022001/article/00011-eng.htm 

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Hancock, H. (2022). Taking Count & Taking Action: 2020-2021 Femicide in Ontario Report. Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses. https://www.oaith.ca/assets/library/Taking-Count-And-Taking-Action-2020-2021-Femicide-In-Ontario-Report.pdf

[iv] Conroy, S. & Sutton, D. (2022). Violence against Seniors and their Perceptions of Safety in  

Canada. Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2022001/article/00011-eng.htm 

[v] Walsh, C.A., Lohfeld, L., Ploeg, J. & Lai, D.W.L. (2007). Violence Across the Lifespan: Interconnections Among Forms of Abuse as Described by Marginalized Canadian Elders and their Care-givers. British Journal of Social Work, 37(3), 491-412. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcm022.


[vii] Latzman, N.E., D’Inverno, A.S., Niolon, P.H. & Reidy, D.E. (2018). Gender Inequality and Gender Based Violence: Extensions to Adolescent Dating Violence. In D.A. Wolfe & J.R. Temple (Eds.), Adolescent Dating Violence: Theory, research, and prevention, (pp.283-314). Elsevier.

[viii] European Institute for Gender Equality. (20203). Gender Inequality. https://eige.europa.eu/publications-resources/thesaurus/terms/1329?language_content_entity=en

[ix] Canadian Centre for Elder Law. (2017). We are Not All the Same: Key law, policy and practice strategies for improving the lives of older women in the lower mainland. https://www.bcli.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/OlderWomenDialogueReportMarch_2017Web.pdf

[x] Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2001). Time for Action: Advancing human rights for 

older Ontarians. https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/time-action-advancing-human-rights-older-ontarians

[xi] Fisher, B.S., Regan, S.L., & Zink, T. (2011). Abuses Against Older Women: Prevalence and health effects. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26(2), 254-268. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260510362877 

[xii] Bows, H. (2018). Sexual Violence Against Older People: A Review of the Empirical Literature. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 19(5), 567–583. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838016683455 

[xiii] Walsh, C.A., Ploeg, J., Lohfeld, L., Lai, D. (2007) Violence across the Lifespan:  Interconnections among forms of abuse as described by marginalized Canadian elders and their care-givers. The British Journal of Social Work, 37(3), 491-412. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcm022

[xiv] Sinha, S.K., Griffin, B., Ringer, T., Reppas-Rindlisbacher, C., Stewart, E., Wong, I., Callan, S., Anderson, G. (2016). An Evidence-Informed National Seniors Strategy for Canada – 2nd edition. Toronto, ON: Alliance for a National Seniors Strategy.

[xv] Canadian Centre for Elder Law. (2017). We are Not All the Same: Key law, policy and practice strategies for improving the lives of older women in the lower mainland. https://www.bcli.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/OlderWomenDialogueReportMarch_2017Web.pdf 

[xvi] Breckman, R., Levin, M., Mantrone, L., & Solomon, J. (2020). The Things They Carry: 

Advancing trauma-informed responses to elder abuse. NYC Elder Abuse Center. https://eapon.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/TheThingsTheyCarry-JAN2020.pdf

[xvii] Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses. (2019). Final Report: Elder abuse 

network community consultations. https://www.oaith.ca/assets/files/assets/AWV%20EAN%20Community%20Consultations%20Report-%20June%202019-%20English%20FINAL%20(2).docx 

[xviii] Atira Women’s Resource Society. (2015) Promising Practices Across Canada for Housing 

Women who are Older and Fleeing Abuse. https://atira.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/Promising-Practices-for-Housing-Women-who-are-Older.pdf

[xix] Beaulaurier, R.L., Seff, L.R., & Newman, F.L. (2008). Barriers to Help-Seeking for Older 

Women who Experience IPV: A descriptive model. Journal of Women & Aging, 20 (3-4), 231-248. https://doi.org/10.1080/08952840801984543

[xx] Beaulaurier, R.L., Seff, L.R., & Newman, F.L. (2008). Barriers to Help-Seeking for Older Women who Experience IPV: A descriptive model. Journal of Women & Aging, 20 (3-4), 231-248. https://doi.org/10.1080/08952840801984543 

[xxi] Ontario Pay Equity Office. (2023). Gender Pension Gap. https://payequity.gov.on.ca/gender-pension-gap/

[xxii] Moyser, M. (2019, August 30). Measuring and Analyzing the Gender Pay Gap: A Conceptual and Methodological Overview. Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-20-0002/452000022019001-eng.htm ​

[xxiii] Weeks, L., Dupuis-Blanchard, S., Arseneault, R., MacQuarrie, C., Gagnon, D., & LeBlanc, G.M.  (2018). Exploring Gender and Elder Abuse from the Perspective of Professionals. Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect, 30(2), 127-143. https://doi.org/10.1080/08946566.2017.1388756  

[xxiv] Edwards, Peggy. (2009). Elder Abuse in Canada: Gender-based analysis. Division of Aging and Seniors, Public Health Agency of Canada. https://www.vawlearningnetwork.ca/webinars/recorded-webinars/2015/Elder_abuse_in_Canada-A_gender_based_analysis.pdf

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