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Research probes sexual assault of older women in care

La Trobe University researcher Dr Catherine Barrett

By Linda Belardi.

A disturbing picture of sexual violence in a range of healthcare settings is emerging from an Australian-first study of sexual assault of older women.

Norma’s project, led by La Trobe University researcher Dr Catherine Barrett, is collecting evidence about the factors that make older women vulnerable to sexual assault.

Dr Barrett said the traditional focus of research has been on the sexual assault of young women; however evidence shows that older women (over 65) are also at risk.

The sexual assault of older women is occurring in a wide range of healthcare contexts by a variety of perpetrators including staff, intruders and residents, Dr Barrett told an Australian Association of Gerontology webinar on gender and elder abuse on Wednesday.

So far nearly 50 people, including service providers, family members and police, have completed a survey or interview to share information on this issue.

Dr Barrett said the ultimate goal of the project was to equip aged care staff, as well as older people and the broader community, with strategies to prevent sexual assault and to protect the sexual safety of older women.

This will involve challenging the belief that older women are immune to sexual assault because they are asexual and that older men don’t perpetrate sexual violence, she said. 

“We will also need to target the reluctance of families to speak out when a sexual assault has occurred, particularly in cases when the sexual violence is occurring in a domestic relationship.”

A police officer that has participated in the research also identified cognitive impairment such as dementia as an important risk factor. The survey respondent said that some older women with cognitive impairment were vulnerable to sexual assault by staff members in aged care facilities, hospitals or rehabilitations centres by those who target victims with the inability to communicate.

The respondent said that in many cases the offenders were casual members of staff, which made identifying patterns of abuse difficult.

Another police respondent described the situation of a male carer who was believed to have been sexually assaulting women in residential aged care facilities and moving from location to location on work experience.

Other cases documented included the sexual assault of an older woman who was residing in retirement village by a fellow resident.

“By raising awareness and giving service providers, older women and their families information I think we can make a really significant difference,” she said.

Dr Barrett said that despite a career spanning 30 years in residential aged care and with older people, she was still shocked and surprised at the stories the project was recording.

Men and elder abuse

Gary Ferguson from Seniors Rights Victoria, who also presented at the webinar, discussed the experience of men and elder abuse, and in particular the reasons why men delay reporting cases of abuse.

Mr Ferguson said that older men were invisible in the discussions about abuse, despite experiencing similar ranges and intensity of elder abuse as women.

“We need to challenge the default position when talking about abuse otherwise men will remain an invisible population,” he said.

CALD individuals and men who were socially isolated were also more at risk of abuse.

In calls to Seniors Rights Victoria, financial abuse (making up 50 per cent of cases) is the most common form of elder abuse reported, followed by psychological and emotional abuse, which represents around one third of cases. However, it is common for abuse to be co-occuring with another type of abuse, he said.

Because of their sense of masculinity, older men often raise elder abuse only when the situation becomes critical.

Mr Ferguson said that suicide amongst older men and homelessness may be a direct result of elder abuse, which is a link that should be further investigated.

He also called for the inclusion of information on elder abuse in men’s health policies and programs

Extra info:

Norma’s Project is being conducted by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University in collaboration with the National Ageing Research Institute, the University of Melbourne, Alzheimer’s Australia and the Council on the Ageing Victoria.

To participate in the research project visit the Norma’s Project website or contact Dr Catherine Barrett at La Trobe University,

The project will continue to conduct surveys and interviews throughout 2013.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is today.

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