The National Center on Elder Abuse defines sexual abuse as nonconsenting sexual contact of any kind. It includes unwanted touching; sexual assault or battery, such as rape, sodomy, and coerced nudity; sexually explicit photographing; and sexual contact with any person incapable of giving consent. It is the least perceived, acknowledged, detected, and reported type of elder abuse, constituting about 1% of all substantiated cases. Researchers and practitioners alike acknowledge that these estimates represent only the most overt cases and may significantly underestimate the incidence of sexual abuse of older adults who are vulnerable because of physical or cognitive disabilities.
Older adults often face unique personal issues and societal challenges that place them at risk for sexual abuse. They typically are more dependent on others for care than the general population; thus, they may perceive their options to report or leave the situation as limited. Because older adults have typically left the workforce and may be at a stage in their lives when they have reduced their social interactions, infrequent contact with others increases their vulnerability to abuse. Older persons living in residential or long-term care settings, such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities, are especially vulnerable to abuse, as they often have dementia or other cognitive impairments and are increasingly dependent on others for their care.
A recent statewide study by Teaster and Roberto focused on the sexual abuse of older adults in both domestic and institutional settings. Their data consisted of 84 substantiated cases of sexual abuse of older adults taken from Adult Protection Services records in Virginia. Most victims of sexual abuse were women, between the ages of 70 and 89, resided in a nursing home, needed help with orientation to time and place, and could not manage their own financial affairs. Typically, the abuse involved instances of sexualized kissing and fondling and unwelcome sexual interest in the person’s body. For older adults living in the community, alleged perpetrators were just as likely to be a nonrelative as a family member. When the incidence occurred in a facility, the alleged perpetrators were most often other residents.
Sexual abuse is highly traumatic for both women and men who experience it. For clinicians, human service workers, and other professionals to be able to effectively prevent and intervene in the lives of elders who suffer sexual abuse, a better understanding of circumstances and outcomes of their situations is required.
- National Center on Elder Abuse. (2006). Clearinghouse on Abuse and Neglect of the Elderly (CANE) annotated bibliography: Elder sexual abuse. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from https://www.elderabusecenter.org/default.cfm_p_cane_sexualabuse.html
- Roberto, K. A., & Teaster, P. B. (2005). Sexual abuse of vulnerable young and old women: A comparative analysis of circumstances and outcomes. Violence Against Women, 11, 473–504.
- Teaster, P. B., & Roberto, K. A. (2004). Sexual abuse of older adults. The Gerontologist, 44, 788–796.
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