Sexual Assault Later in Life: Hidden Survivors

“I’m having to suffer for what he did.” - Miss Mary, a 98-year old survivor who was raped by her grandson

We live in an ageist society. Youth is prized and treasured, with children and young adults seen as representing and paving the way to the future. The high value placed on youth can leave the elderly population a forgotten and nearly invisible group of people. Older women and men are not often considered potential victims of sexual violence, due in part to societal beliefs that they are not sexually desirable, not sexual beings, and thus safe from sexual assault.

These assumptions are damaging and simply untrue. Older adults can and do engage in consensual sex, have intimate relationships, and date. They can also be the victims of sexual assault and abuse.

Sexual assault of an older woman by a stranger is extremely rare, though such incidents are much more likely to receive media attention and incite public outcry. In actuality, women or men who are sexually abused later in life are most often victimized by individuals they know, such as a family member, caregiver, or intimate partner.

The trauma reaction to being sexually assaulted later in life can be complex and severe, especially if the assailant is an adult child or family member. The survivor may feel guilt and shame, wondering if they did something to provoke the abuse. Older survivors assaulted by a family member often feel disgust at the assault, but still care for the assailant. In one study, an elderly woman who had been sexually abused by her son stated that although she wanted the abuse to end, she did not want to send her son to prison.

Rape and sexual assault are underreported by all age groups, with older adults among the least likely to report. Recent studies suggest that as many as 85% of older adults who are sexually assaulted do not report the assault to Law Enforcement or present to the hospital. Many older adults grew up during a time when sexuality and sexual violence were rarely spoken about openly. Another reason that older adults do not report their sexual assault or abuse is fear of losing their home or assets; often, sexual abuse committed by a caregiver is accompanied by other forms of abuse such as financial exploitation or neglect. Another barrier to reporting for older adults is an inability to use a phone or drive to a hospital; stroke and traumatic brain injury are just two examples of conditions that can inhibit mobility and speech. A caregiver such as a home health aide or visiting nurse could be the catalyst for stopping the abuse by making a report to Adult Protective Services or the Long Term Care Ombudsmen Program.

No one should have to endure the trauma of sexual abuse. Caregivers and individuals who work with older adults in any setting are mandated reporters and must call Adult Protective Services and Law Enforcement if there is actual knowledge or reason to believe that an older adult is being sexually assaulted or abused. Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands provides free, confidential counseling to any survivor of sexual abuse or assault age 12 and over. It is never too late in life to receive treatment for the trauma caused by sexual violence.