Sexual Abuse in Older Adults

When people reach a certain age, society tends to view them as asexual. The thought of individuals over the age of 60 as sexual people is often hard for younger people to grasp, as they tend to view this generation as parental figures, not someone they would be sexually involved with.  Since we often avoid thinking of senior citizens in any sexual situation, it may not occur to many people that the elderly can be victims of sexual abuse, but they can.  Our comprehensive Sexual Assault two-volume set includes a chapter on Rape and Sexual Abuse of Older Adults.

While it is true that older adults are less likely to be the victims of violent crime than their younger counterparts, elder abuse occurs more often than it should.  An estimated 3% of sexual assaults are committed against adults over the age of 60, but that number can be hard to quantify, as many older adults lack the cognitive ability to report assault or rely so strongly on the caregiver who has assaulted them that they fear repercussions if they come forward.  Also, it may be difficult to identify symptoms of abuse in the elderly, as psychological effects of rape are nonspecific to abuse, and may be mistaken for symptoms of menopause, dementia, or other psychological problems common in older adults.

The numbers may seem small, but the assault of older adults tends to be especially sadistic and the perpetrator is often aware of the unlikelihood that they will be reported, and therefore may commit more heinous crimes.  Allegations of abuse in institutional settings are rarely investigated fully and even when accusations are substantiated, minimal disciplinary action results and they very rarely include prosecution.  Outside of nursing homes, it is most commonly a family member committing the abuse and these cases are rarely discovered or reported.

Most of the services in place for helping sexual assault victims lack the necessary tools to help with the specific needs of older adult victims.   It is crucial to understand that older adults often have a harder time adapting to stress and may have certain physical or cognitive issues not common in younger victims, such as hearing loss or dementia.  Being sensitive to these minor differences can help tremendously in identifying sexual assault and helping older individuals cope with trauma.

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