When St. Cloud police responded to a recent domestic dispute, the scene was a surreal mix between "Cops" and "Cocoon." A 66-year-old woman had allegedly punched and pushed her 75-year-old husband after tying him to his bed with a dog collar and leash. According to police reports, the woman withheld her husband's heart medication and locked him in a bedroom. Police allege that the abuse has been going on for about a year.
This couple, who met in an assisted-living community, is an example of the increasing problem of spousal abuse among Americans over the age of 60. In the last 10 years reports of domestic abuse among senior citizens have increased by 20 percent. Florida has the highest frequency of these attacks, with more than 75,000 incidents of elder spousal abuse per year. This number accounts for nearly 10 percent of national cases.
"People think the abusers are all the Jerry Springer type. Believe it or not, some abusers prefer Lawrence Welk," explains Thom Gritz, media-relations director at 60-Plus, an elder support group. "No one wants to think that the kindly old man down the street would beat the hell out of his wife, but it happens every day."
Women account for 80 percent of victims, but a growing number of men are reporting abuse. Men over 60 are much more likely to be battered in their own homes than males of any other age level, including children.
For some senior citizens, the violence continues years of abuse. "I spoke to an older man in a wheelchair recently," says Paula Basil, founder and director of No Abuse, an Orlando organization that counsels abusers. "His wife had just left him, and he wanted to stop this abusive behavior. At that point, he's probably wondering if he can stop."
When violence begins later in life, often to the surprise of both victim and abuser, a variety of factors may trigger the onset of the behavior. Alcohol, medications and dementia are often involved.
As Alzheimer's-related symptoms set in, a person may lash out at his or her spouse. "People think Alzheimer's only makes people forget," explains Raymond Yancy, marketing director of the American Alzheimer's Task Force. "In reality, it also makes people confused; they don't remember what type of person they are." The first sign of Alzheimer-related dementia is inappropriate behavior, such as raunchy remarks, unwelcome touching or violence.
Medications can alter behavior. The American Association of Retired Persons notes that Americans over 60 take an average of five medications a week. These can combine with the common forgetfulness and confusion that affect seniors, causing catastrophic effects on the mind and body.
Additionally, metabolism changes with age. While an average 30-year-old can process one glass of beer per hour, an older man may take twice as long. Alcohol can interact with medications, causing the person to do things he would never have done in his younger years.
For women, chemical changes during menopause can trigger new behavior. As estrogen levels drops, women may experience anxiety, irritability and depression. These symptoms can last from a few weeks to several years. In extreme cases, these women never return to their "old" self, instead becoming sullen, moody and occasionally violent.
But emotional and psychological issues change with age, too. When men retire, the pressure to find an identity can cause great stress. "The man has been working for 40 years," explains Gritz. "When he leaves his job, he doesn't know where to turn. He may get more and more annoyed at his wife's daily routine. At this point, he lashes out with a fury he never knew he possessed." Gritz recently counseled a 63-year-old man who bludgeoned his wife to death because her vacuuming was "too loud."
Newfound worries over finances can aggravate problems. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, almost half of Americans over 60 are near the poverty level. An astounding 94 percent of seniors are dependent on Social Security for their monthly bills. "Retirement can be just as stressful as unemployment," explains Gritz.
Older victims' reaction to abuse is colored by lifelong patterns and social worries. "A younger victim will tend to be more defiant," explains Karen Hannigan, director of the National Center for Elder Abuse. "She is still afraid for her life but angry at the man for putting her in the situation. An older victim is racked with guilt and shame. She wonders what the neighbors will think."
Older victims have fewer places to turn. Usually, marketing and educational materials to aid victims feature photos, profiles and advice for much younger people.
Even when victims have available resources, they might not be willing to discuss their personal lives in depth. "They [may] have been abused for 50 years," explains Basil. "They may have been a housewife for their entire life. They wonder what type of life they can make for themselves if they break from their husbands."
Male victims face an even greater dearth of resources. Community services for men tend to be limited to medical and emotional treatment after the fact, rather than empowerment and prevention.
The physical effects can be especially damaging to the elderly. "If a 20-year-old woman falls down to the ground, she probably will get up without a problem," explains Gritz. "But a 75-year-old is more likely to break bones."
Senior citizens bruise easily. As people age, their skin becomes less supple. As the pigments fade, bruises begin to stand out more. Unfortunately, many people fail to see the red flags. "When you see a bruise on an older person," explains Hannigan, "you don't think domestic abuse; you think they fell in the shower."
Most counselors concede they're fighting an uphill battle. to identify all victims of domestic abuse. "There are just too many variables," admits Gritz. "But maybe we can put a dent in the number of incidents."