old womans faceThe sexual abuse of older people is a subject that is rarely discussed, but is nevertheless a reality. In a small number of cases it is the result of opportunism (e.g. a careworker seeing a chance to assault a dependent person), but more often it is planned by someone known to the older person - sometimes it is the continuation of domestic violence into old age, in some cases it is about exercising power and control, and in some cases it is associated with an incestuous relationship. There are also reported cases of older women from minority communities being targeted because of their ethnic origins.

One of the challenges of elder sexual abuse is the perpetuation of the myth that it is predominantly perpetrated by strangers, and is often a secondary crime e.g. a man who is burgling a property takes the opportunity to sexually assault or rape an older woman. This myth is sustained by a societal attitude that does not accept the concept of sexuality in older age, and therefore the idea that an older woman can be targeted because she is a woman.

Another challenge of elder sexual abuse is that, because it is often denied, the opportunity to protect forensic evidence can be lost by the kindness or embarrassment of others who desire to make the older person comfortable instead of calling the police.

It is important to establish the basic principle that sexual abuse is a crime, regardless of the age of a victim.

What are the signs of sexual abuse?

Very often the behaviour of an older person, even if they have confusion, will tell you that something is wrong. Even with dementia, people can often make their feelings known if you take the time to listen, observe and take notice. It is the capacity to believe that elder sexual abuse is possible, without seeing it everywhere, that will increase the potential to detect and respond to it when it happens.

Just 2% of the calls to our helpline relate to sexual abuse. This is certainly an under-Worried old womanrepresentation, taking all that we know about elder abuse in general and about sexual abuse in its widest sense.

Some of the signs to watch for are:

  • Bruises around the breasts or genital area
  • Unexplained venereal disease or genital infections
  • Unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding
  • Difficulty in walking or standing
  • Marked changes in behaviour
  • Torn, stained, or bloody underclothing
  • An older person telling you they have been sexually assaulted or raped

If you suspect sexual abuse 

If you suspect sexual abuse do NOT wash the older person or their clothing. Do NOT let time drift by while you think about your course of action. Call the police immediately as they are the experts and will have the skills, expertise and equipment to appropriately and sensitively respond.

Always ensure that sexual assault or rape is recognised as a crime.