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nexus:
Moving Towards a Peaceful Life

Carole Seaver talks about the Milwaukee Women's Center and its older battered women's program.

From nexus, Volume 1, Issue 3, October 1995.

In 1991, the Milwaukee Women's Center (MWC) launched one of the nation's first programs designed to serve elderly battered women. Its inception marked the culmination of a year of planning by the Task Force on Battered Women of Milwaukee County, a group of 30 professionals from the field of aging who were concerned that Milwaukee's traditional aging and elder abuse service programs were not adequately responding to the needs of abused older women. MWC's program includes a support group, case management, shelter, and counseling from volunteers. Carole Seaver, Director of the program, talks about the program and the women it serves.

nexus: Could you start by telling us about your clients and what brings them to MWC?

CS: The program is for elderly women who have been physically or emotionally abused and those who are healing from past abuse. Our clients range in age from 53 to 91. Two-thirds have been abused by their spouses while the others have been victimized by their children. The abuse includes physical assault, threats to kill, and sustained verbal abuse.

nexus: In recent years, there's been heightened awareness about spouse abuse among the elderly. We've heard about "late onset abuse" which begins in old age and "spouse abuse grown old," situations in which the abuse began earlier in life and continues into old age. Do these patterns apply to the women you see?

CS: There are some cases that appear to be "late onset abuse" but I think that what usually happens is that aging issues exacerbate what was already there. I'm thinking of one case in which the husband was extremely abusive to his wife verbally. He was becoming frail and his frustration with his multiple illnesses and impairments was certainly a contributing factor. But the couple's children contend that they had seen the abuse earlier; they felt it had just become worse as their father became more frail and dependent. In one-half of the cases of spouse abuse that we have seen, the women were abused by second or third partners. What's interesting to me about these cases is that the women's first husbands were usually not abusive. This contradicts the notion that certain women are attracted to abusive men and will repeatedly seek out abusive relationships. The abusive husbands tend to be Jekyl/Hyde types, real charmers, who the women meet in mid-life when they're convinced that they aren't going to hook up with anyone again.

nexus: Is money a motive in these cases?

CS: That's a big part of it. Money and housing. In several of the cases, the women came into the marriages with houses or money and the men just moved in. Or, the new husbands sold their wives' homes and hid the money in assets that the wives don't know about - some real tricky deals. One second husband refused to drive his wife to the hospital when she needed surgery, claiming that she was deliberately trying to impoverish him with all of her medical care. Eventually, she became so disgusted with him that she wanted a divorce. At that point, he threatened to kill her.

nexus: Domestic violence theory asserts that abuse is the exercise of control over less powerful individuals. In elder abuse, disability and dependency seem to affect risk. What are your thoughts on how dependency contributes to domestic violence?

CS: The literature on elder abuse has portrayed victims as frail, impaired people who are dependent on their abusers for essential care. That is not what we've seen here. While 18 of the 120 women I've worked with have had significant impairments, only five were dependent on abusive partners or children for their care. The other 13 managed to take care of themselves or received help from other people. The abusers don't fit the classic profile either because many are retired or getting frail. They are not men who are feeling very powerful. They are more dependent on their partners now than they were at an earlier age when they were out working and earning a living.

nexus: Your program serves victims of emotional abuse as well as physical. Some may question whether or not emotional abuse really constitutes "battering." Why such a strong focus on emotional abuse?

CS: We wanted to include emotional abuse because most women say that it hurts the most. Verbal abuse also frequently escalates into physical abuse; men who threaten their partners often carry out their threats. Verbal abuse can also result in physical harm since older women are prone to heart attacks or strokes which are stress related. One of the women I worked with died a few weeks ago at the age of 83. She had been married for 63 years and was in the process of getting a divorce but her heart gave out. I think the accumulated stress of constant verbal abuse was so intense that it wore her down. She was a member of our support group and was looking forward to coming back. But she didn't make it and didn't enjoy the years of peacefulness that we'd hoped for.

nexus: What makes a woman decide to leave after 63 years?

CS: I think you have to look at the broader question of what makes women decide to break free from abusive relationships. I think its a combination of an extreme threat and solid support. Usually there's been an incident or threat that is very scary. Or maybe the abuse is wearing down the woman's health or her mental health and she realizes that if she gets free, she'll have a few more years without all the trauma. I had one woman who was dying of cancer go through a divorce proceeding because she wanted to be free even at that point. It's also a question of having solid support, a son or daughter or friend who can really be counted on.

Another factor that's very important is how the system responds when she does seek help. This is a real problem because the justice system isn't prepared to deal, for example, with a marriage that's being dissolved after 40 or 50 years. I had one case in which a judge ordered a woman to sell her home and divide the assets. Selling her home was the last thing she wanted to do and there were other options available. The judge just wasn't educated about the options or sensitive to the issues.

Leaving abusive situations also takes time. Experience shows that it takes an average of 7 or 8 attempts to finally leave an abusive relationship. There is, what I call, the Bermuda Triangle of choices: to leave, to stay, or to fight back. Each of these options is incredibly difficult and fraught with dangers.

One of the first women I worked with took two years to leave. The professsional who had referred her to me thought that she was just talking and would never actually leave. She called the client a "help-rejecting complainer" which I thought was an interesting concept. She was not able to see that domestic violence involves a lot of back and forth and ambivalence.

nexus: Let's switch gears and talk about the services you provide. Let's start with the support group.

CS: The group, which ranges in size from 7 to 12 members, has been going for about two years. We usually start sessions by focusing on a particular question or problem that the group has identified. We talk a lot about power and control so that group members understand the dynamics of family violence. When they come to the group, I give them an article on verbal self defense which we discuss and they develop safety plans to protect themselves from future abuse. Each time we go around the group and hear how everyone's week has gone. We make sure that each woman has a turn to speak and that she knows that we want to hear from her.

It's just amazing what the group means to the women and what we've all learned. It's a transforming experience. You have to understand the isolation and shame of living with abuse. There are all kinds of reasons why victims can't talk about their abuse. Other people don't want to hear about it or give ridiculous advice. Victim's children don't want to get in the middle of their parents' conflicts. But when the women come to the support group, they can actually talk about it, laugh, and cry.

It's a real relief. They also talk about resources and give each other tips on coping and surviving. The incredible things these women have tried!

nexus: What are the other services you provide?

CS: The Women's Center runs a shelter which, until recently, wasn't serving many older women. In the last year and a half, we've had 9 placements. While it's not a lot of people, it shows that if you have special programming and you let professionals know that it's appropriate to direct older women to a shelter, they will use it. We also provide case management, which is aimed at helping the women see that they have choices. We talk about what they need, where they want to go, and how long they want to take. My role is to tell them what their options are—not what to do. We assign volunteers to women who lack the kind of support they need to break out of abusive relationships--the friend or relative who is solidly in their corner. The volunteer can spend much more time than I can just talking.

nexus: Your experiences seem to contradict a lot of stereotypes about older women. Some people believe that older women aren't going to change.

CS: Someone told me when I started this program, "these women aren't going anywhere." And yet a third of them have freed themselves of abuse by leaving or evicting the abuser. Another third are working toward change and the rest are pretty much saying, "well, it wasn't so bad, I am going to go back." The hopeful message is that you can get some sort of peacefulness, a different life, in older age and that it's possible to do something about abuse. We had also heard that with support groups, you couldn't combine the women who were staying in abusive relationships with those who were leaving because they would be at each other's throats. But that hasn't happened at all. The group is just so glad when someone finally gets their divorce or is free of the abuser. They rejoice in it.

nexus: Do you have any suggestions for people in other communities who are interested in starting programs for older battered women?

CS: I think that support groups are the best way to start. Older women will get more from each other than from any other source. I would say that the best outreach strategy is to work with professionals who work with older people. I have even had referrals from foot doctors. I also have a lot of support from the local Older Women's League. They have been my most stalwart supporters right from the beginning and have provided volunteers, clerical help, donations, and emotional support to me. They also advocate for social policy that provides more options for older women so that they don't have to stay in abusive situations because they have nowhere else to turn.

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