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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month with the goal of not only raising awareness to sexual assault and violence, but ultimately preventing it. This year, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center shared the message that asking for consent is a normal and neccessary part of sex (and any sexual acts). Sexual assault is not isolated to any one demographic. Older adults are at risk of sexual assault, too, especially those who live alone or in senior or nursing facilities. Many older adults are unable to give consent. Abusers may target seniors because they are isolated or easily confused, and therefore not able to report the assault.
What is sexual assault? Since consent is a necessary part of a safe sexual encounter, anything outside of the can be considered sexual assault. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the term “sexual assault” refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Rape is one form of sexual assault. Unwanted sexual touching, fondling, attempted rape, forced nudity, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, etc are also some examples of sexual assault. Force can refer to physical pressure, but it can also mean intimidation, manipulation, emotional coercion, or psychological force. Threatening harm to a victim and/or their loved ones is an example of force. It makes no difference if the contact is significant or minor, if it is sexual in nature and nonconsensual, it is sexual abuse.
Am I or my loved one at risk? According to Nursing Home Abuse Guide, older women are six times more likely than men to be sexually assaulted. 70% of elderly sexual abuse occurs in nursing homes but only about 30% of victims report it to the authorities. Most of the time (about 81%), the abuser is the primary caregiver. This does not mean that all nursing home caregivers are abusers, nor does it mean that all primary caregivers are abusers. It indicates that the dependent nature of an older adult on a caregiver for daily, personal care can unfortunately be an opportunity for a sexual predator to take advantage of a helpless victim. Isolation, neglect and physical disability are risk factors. Older adults without regular familial and/or social connections are more of a target because they don’t have anyone to advocate for them.
What can I do? If you are an older adult, widen your circle of community now, if you can. Talk to your neighbors, family and friends. Connect with your local senior center or place of worship. Surround yourself with people who know you well enough to ask questions and check in when something seems off. Let others know that you are not alone. Speak up if you can. If a caregiver makes you feel uncomfortable, tell someone. Long term care facilities have an ombudsman, a person specifically designated to listen to resident’s complaints and offer solutions or seek help on their behalf. Speaking up is unfortunately not an option for many, but if you are an older adult and able to care for yourself, create intentional connections now with people who can become your support network later.
If you have placed a loved one in a nursing home or senior living facility, chances are that they are there because you don’t have the capacity to care for them yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for that. Nursing homes exist to care for individuals when aging-in-place and family caretakers are not realistic options. These facilities are regulated and have systems in place to protect their residents. That being said, sexual predators aren’t always visible. Do be intentional with checking in on aging loved ones, asking questions, watching for signs of abuse/harm. It’s often easy to disregard the things a loved one with dementia or other cognitive deficiencies says. Take every sign of sexual assault seriously, though. You can speak up on their behalf. Report everything. Even if it ends up being nothing, it’s always safer to ask questions and file reports than to ignore the warning signs. A nursing-home-resident with an active circle of family and friends checking in is less of a target to a sexual predator. In times like the present shelter-in-place order, when visiting is not allowed, use video calls to check in on your loved one. Many nursing facilities are working to make this an option. If it isn’t one yet, insist on it.
Signs to watch for:
- marks or bruises (any, and also in genital areas, thighs, and breasts)
- Torn, stained or bloody clothing (Never discard these. They may be valuable pieces of evidence)
- Unexplained vaginal or rectal bleeding
- Unexplained STDs and infections
- Anxiety or excessive fear around caregivers or visitors
- Agitation and sudden change in mood
This information is not comprehensive but designed to shed light on elder sexual assault. Ask your caregivers, nursing home directors, etc what safety measures are in place to protect you and your loved ones. Find out more at Nursing Home Abuse Guide and RAINN. Be well and be vigilant to protect yourself and your loved ones from sexual assault.
DISCLAIMER: This article contains information that is intended to help the readers be better informed regarding exercise and health care. It is presented as general advice on health care. Always consult your doctor for your individual needs. Before beginning any new exercise program it is recommended that you seek medical advice from your personal physician. This article is not intended to be a substitute for the medical advice of a licensed physician. The reader should consult with their doctor in any matters relating to his/her health.