Domestic abuse can happen to anyone at any age, and women are particularly at risk. It is devastating and life threatening.
Social distancing measures during the current crisis mean that victims are at even greater risk, trapped at home with abusers at a time when coercive, controlling and violent behaviors are on the rise.
Among those victims, there is an almost invisible group: that of elderly women.
The full extent of gender-based violence among them is unknown, due to a lack of meaningful information and confusion around terminology.
Generational attitudes can lead to people who have lived in such a situation for decades not even calling their experience by its name: abuse.
In England and Wales, a crime survey found that around 180,000 women aged 60 to 74 were victims of domestic abuse in 2019-2020, as well as around 98,000 men.
One of them told the BBC how she left her abusive husband at age 70, after 55 years of marriage.
Sarah * wasn’t allowed to paint her nails, wear perfume, or go to bed until her husband, Barry *, came home from the pub.
He never received a birthday or Christmas present. Her husband’s behavior was so controlling that he drew a line around the objects in the house to see if she moved them while he was away.
The abuse by Barry, both mental and physical, began two years after their wedding. Never believing she had a way out, Sarah endured it for more than five decades.
But after Barry once again accused her of moving an object from the house even though he had forbidden her to do so, Sarah, 73, decided to leave.
She fled to her daughter’s home in the West Midlands, putting 100 miles between her and the man who had promised to love and respect her until death parted them.
There, she is ready to rebuild her life, free from fear.
“If I have another five years left, I’m looking forward to doing what I want and being happy,” he says.
“I never thought I could leave and that I had somewhere to go, but I can, so I say to anyone in the same situation, ‘you can go out and not do what i did and stay so long“.
Finding the strength to leave can be the hardest part and knowing that you have to start over at an older age too it can be overwhelmingaccording to Raj Thind, regional head of domestic abuse service at Black Country Women’s Aid, who has been helping Sarah.
“Leaving involves a high degree of unpredictability,” Thind said.
“Staying gives you some control, because you already know the abuse at home, but leaving can lead to the victim being harassed and without knowing to what extremes the abuser will go.
“Also, after so many years of abuse, it can be normalized … there is a paralyzing fear that keeps you attached to that person.”
Barry would not allow Sarah to leave the house they shared and, if he gave her permission, she had to return at a specific time. Her family had to make appointments with Barry to see her.
If he went out into the garden, she had to sit in the dining room so he could see her through the window. He constantly criticized her and did not hide that he was having relationships with other women.
But one day last year, Sarah decided that I couldn’t take it anymore.
Over the years, he was able to keep control of his pension and disability allowance, and while that had helped fund Barry’s lifestyle, he had managed to save a little money.
“My nerves were on edge that day,” he said. “I just got fed up.”
Barry had come out after an argument and Sarah told her son, who lived with them, what she was going to do. He packed a suitcase and they both ran to a neighbor who called a taxi to take them to a nearby hotel.
“I was so paranoid. I called the police and my son and I would cry and look out the window, waiting,” she said.
“The police could not come immediately and we were tan scared that, in the end, we went to the station and took a bus and then a train to where my daughter lives. “
At some point, she called her daughter, Emma * from a phone booth and told her that she had left, but she thought she was being followed and hung up.
Overcome by panic, Emma reported her missing and alerted police in her mother’s hometown.
Barry assured that he had done nothing wrong and hinted that his wife suffered from mental illness.
It took a week to find Sarah, who had been moving from B & Bs and hotels with her son.
“My mother was unrecognizable when I went looking for her,” Emma said.
“He could barely speak. He was shaking. It was terrible.”
“Saved my life”
Sarah last saw Barry after being evaluated by mental health teams in the days after her reunion with her daughter. They found nothing wrong with her.
“(Barry) He told me he was sorry and that he would change, like he always said, but he never did,” Sarah said.
He then began to threaten his daughter, but stopped after a warrant was issued preventing him from approaching her.
“The help I have received since then has been exceptional,” said Sarah.
“They have saved my life. I didn’t think there was help, but there is“.
Thind notes that there are several ways that victims of domestic abuse can be helped, even if they are not ready to leave an abusive relationship.
“Often it can be just talking to someone,” he said.
“There are women who have said that just talking to me helps: ‘Me pI’ll be able to go but not yet‘and you accompany them until they can.
“It is important that they know that there is help.”
*All the names were changed.
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‘Saved my life’
Sarah said she last saw Barry after being assessed by mental health teams in the days following the reunion with her daughter. They found nothing wrong with her.
“He said he was sorry and that he’d change, just like he always said, but he never did,” Sarah said.
He has since made threats against his daughter and made her “look over her shoulder”, but has stopped since his wife took out an order on him preventing him from coming near her.
“The help I have since received has been outstanding,” Sarah said.
“They’ve saved my life. I didn’t think there was help, but there is.”
Ms Thind said there were a number of ways victims of domestic abuse could be helped, even if they were not ready to leave an abusive relationship.
“Often it can be just talking to someone,” she said.
“We have women who’ve said just talking to me helps, ‘I will be able to go, but not yet’ and you go on a journey with them.
“It’s important they know help is there.”
*All names have been changed.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.