Aged care providers are in a unique position to provide support to older women who have been sexually assaulted or are at-risk of assault, write Dr Bianca Fileborn and Dr Catherine Barrett.
There is growing evidence to suggest that the sexual assault of older women is a serious issue. Recent Australian research, for example, found that older women experience sexual assault in the community and in residential care facilities. Perpetrators often include husbands or partners, sons and other family members, other residents at aged care facilities, strangers, or care staff and other service providers.
While women experience sexual assault across all stages of their life course, there are unique factors relating to older women’s experience that require consideration. For example, older women may believe that their husband or partner has a ‘right’ to access them sexually, and therefore might not recognise or label experiences of sexual assault.
Having a cognitive or health impairment can make it more difficult for older women to report or recognise an incident of sexual assault, or may mean that they are less likely to be believed. If the perpetrator is the woman’s primary carer, this can also act as a barrier to disclosure. For older women with cognitive impairments or conditions such as dementia, determining whether they are competent to give sexual consent can be challenging.
We also know that the sexual assault of older women can have serious impacts. For instance, older women can be more vulnerable to sustaining genital injury. Sexual assault can result in a range of emotional, psychological and physical impacts, and these may be exacerbated for older women.
It is vitally important that we work to prevent the sexual assault of older women, and to provide support to older women who have been sexually assaulted. However, many of the factors discussed above mean that older women are often unlikely or unable to tell anyone if they have been sexually assaulted, or they may be socially isolated and vulnerable. This means that the sexual assault of older women is largely hidden.
Aged care service providers are in a unique position where they are able to provide support, and have access to older women who have been sexually assaulted, or are at-risk of sexual assault. We believe that aged care service providers are already using a range of strategies to support older women who have been sexually assaulted or are at-risk of sexual assault. However, these strategies and practices have not been documented. That’s why we’ve initiated the study, Older women’s right to be safe in care and at home.
Our project aims to document strategies used by aged care service providers in supporting older women who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, sexual assault. This might include seemingly simple or small steps, like listening to older women, noticing changes in behaviour, or that a woman is particularly tearful. By documenting these strategies, this will help to inform training and support for aged care service providers, and to ultimately work towards preventing the sexual assault of older women.
To document the stories and experiences of aged care service providers, we are currently running an anonymous and confidential national survey. The survey will close at the end of July.
Dr Bianca Fileborn is a research fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University, and Dr Catherine Barrett is founder of The OPAL Institute and Celebrate Ageing.