Age no protection against sexual assault

Sexual assaults of frail, elderly women are the worst of an abominable crime


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NOT HEARD: While we are not listening to older women, sexual assault perpetrators are getting away with it. Image: Shutterstock

NOT HEARD: While we are not listening to older women, sexual assault perpetrators are getting away with it. Image: Shutterstock

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The numbers of sexual assaults on older people are likely much higher than data shows.

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SHOCKING new data revealing the extent of sexual assault and abuse suffered by older Victorians doesn’t surprise Dr Catherine Barrett. 

The founder/director of Celebrate Ageing and the OPAL Institute (Older People and Sexuality)  an organisation established to promote the sexual rights of older people, suspects the true numbers are much higher as many sexual assaults of older people are never reported.

As reported in The Senior, data from the Crime Statistics Agency shows more than one third of those older Victorians who were sexually assaulted over the past 10 years were over 85 years  and close to 60 per cent took place in a nursing home or healthcare facility.

“There’s a myth out there that old age is a protective factor against sexual abuse. A myth that sexual abuse is about attraction when in fact sexual abuse is about power,” said Dr Barrett. 

Many rape and other sexual abuse cases also occurred in the home, she said but many went unreported for various reasons





Old age is no protection against sexual abuse: Dr Catherine Barrett, founder/director of Celebrate Ageing and the OPAL Institute.

Old age is no protection against sexual abuse: Dr Catherine Barrett, founder/director of Celebrate Ageing and the OPAL Institute.

“Older women don’t feel they will be listened to, they fear retribution and in the case of sexual abuse with intimate partners, this could have been going on for years. As younger women they may have complained to family or a doctor or priest and were told to go away and be good wives.

“We don’t listen and while we are not listening to older women these perpetrators are getting away with it.”

Dr Barrett is the co-author of a report on the Norma's Project which was set up to help prevent the sexual assault of older women in Australia. 

The Project was named after Norma a woman in her 80s who had been diagnosed with dementia and who was sexually abused by a care worker at an aged care facility where she had gone for respite.

The police and the facility were notified, the complaint was investigated and the perpetrator identified. However, due to the absence of physical evidence, the lack of corroborating witnesses and Norma’s diagnosis of dementia, no further action was recommended or taken by the police or the aged care facility.

The Norma Project report exposes the horror of sexual assaults on older people, the problems encountered in bringing perpetrators to justice and the lack of knowledge and education both among aged care providers, the general community and victims themselves.

“Sexual violence against any woman is intolerable, but sexual violence against frail, very old women, be they living in residential aged care, or receiving care at home, constitute the worst cases of this abominable crime,” says the report.

“Frail older women, often suffering dementia, have no defences against the perpetrators. Sometimes, the perpetrators are in fact the very people charged with care of the older women. The situation of these older abused women is especially damaging when they are unable to describe what has happened to them, or identify their attacker so that criminal process can be set in train.”

The report quoted research which showed that sexual assault could decrease the quality and length of an older persons’s life. One case analysis of 20 older people who were sexually assaulted, most of whom were over 70, indicated that over half died within a year of the assault.

If you have been sexually abused or believe someone you know is a victim of sexual abuse you can receive 24 hour confidential help from the National Sexual Assault Domestic Violence Counselling Service 1800-737-732 or www.1800respect.org.au. If you are in immediate danger contact the Police on Triple Zero (000).

Read more: Big jump in complaints to aged care complaints investigators

Read more: Abuse and poor care: Fearful elderly clueless about how to complain: claims National Seniors

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