A new Maritimes-wide research project is aiming to find the best way to support the unique needs of women in midlife and older who are experiencing intimate partner violence.

Co-led by researchers at Dalhousie University and the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research at the University of New Brunswick, the project recently received close to $600,000 in federal funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“It just seems like when you say domestic violence, your thoughts don’t immediately go to someone who’s an older woman. You think of a younger woman, you think of someone maybe with children,” Dr. Lori Weeks, study co-lead and a professor at Dalhousie University’s School of Nursing, said in an interview.

“Obviously that’s a very important population as well. But we have an aging population, our demographics are shifting in our society. And I think that somehow we don’t always think about the needs of older women when we think about these kinds of services.”

Weeks said while there are organizations like Atira in Vancouver, B.C. that do a great job meeting the specific needs of older women, it’s “quite rare in Canada.”

“We are an aging population and we have a lot more people who are going to be seniors in the future,” she said. “We often have been very youth-focussed in the past. But we need to pay more attention to meeting the needs of older adults in the future.”

A smiling woman with short brown bobbed hair smiles at the camera as she sits against a studio backdrop. She's wearing a white tee shirt underneath a black button-up shirt.
Dr. Lori Weeks, study co-lead and a professor and gerontologist at Dalhousie University’s School of Nursing. Credit: Contributed

‘Difficult to know the full extent’

While estimates suggest that anywhere from 15 to 30% of women who are middle-aged or older experience intimate partner violence (IPV) at some point in their lives, many experts suspect the number is likely much higher. 

“It’s unfortunately very prevalent in our society. We often talk about an iceberg as a metaphor, that the cases we know about are the tip of the iceberg,” Weeks said.

“But unfortunately, there’s all of that below the surface that no one ever reports. No one ever talks about it. It’s hidden. It’s secret. In all of our statistics, as much as it’s very important to try to document it, it’s very difficult to really know the full extent of abuse that happens.”

A Dalhousie University media release notes that in a study of coroners’ files of homicide by people 65 and older, 89% of the victims were female. Of those, 93% were current or former spouses of male perpetrators. 

“We know that in most cases the perpetrator is male and the person who is experiencing abuse is female,” Weeks said.

Much less knowledge about older women’s experiences

The new project, titled Advocacy Intervention for Women in Midlife and Older, isn’t targeting women at a specific “magical” age. Instead, they’re focused on women deemed “in midlife” and older. This includes women who don’t have dependent children and who are still in the workforce as well as those who are retired. 

“There’s certainly much less knowledge about the experiences of older women versus younger women in this particular topic, but in some research that we’ve done we’ve really found that there are some interesting differences,” Weeks said. 

“So you can even think about the physical design in terms of accessibility of supports like shelters and housing.”

Weeks said her team has interviewed older Atlantic Canadian women for related research. They find many have often lived in their homes and communities for long periods of time. 

“The solution of just getting them out and leaving all of that life behind can be different for an older woman versus a younger woman,” Weeks said. 

“Even women in rural places talked about ‘I’m not going to leave my animals, I’m not going to leave my home that I’ve built,’ these kinds of things. So there can be some things that because of age are different.”

Program adapted specifically for older women

Researchers are going to deliver a program that has yielded promising outcomes for women experiencing IPV. However, it will be adapted specifically for older women. Weeks and her team will train people already working with those experiencing domestic violence as well as people working in the field of older adults and elder abuse. 

Those existing professionals (six in total, likely two for each province) will be hired to implement the virtual program in all three Maritime provinces. 

The initiative involves two components. The first is around education, empowerment, and advocacy. That includes a one-on-one session specific to the identified needs of older women. Women will be provided with information about things like the dynamics of abusive relationships. They’ll also learn about resources that exist in their area. 

The second part of the program is a social support component. That includes weekly follow-ups with each woman for 12 weeks following the initial session. Weeks said they’ll collect data from the women before they start the program, and then again after three months and for nine months. 

This will allow them to follow the short and long term impacts of the program on participants’ physical and mental health. It will also help determine what strategies, initiatives, and actions the women have taken.

Breaking down barriers

Researchers are also planning to include diverse women in the project. They’ll have team members to deliver programming in French, and they want to include new immigrants, people who are visible and racialized minorities, and those living in rural regions.

Each of the 13 meetings will be conducted virtually either by telephone or by Zoom video call.

While there are drawbacks to everything, Weeks believes having women attend a central place on 13 different occasions would create more barriers than accessing a phone, tablet, or computer. 

“There always were a lot of barriers for a lot of people in physically going to access services. There could be some safety issues there. If they don’t have access to transportation, if they don’t have access to the resources to do that,” Weeks said. 

“Being able to do it wherever they are, safe and comfortable, can be an added benefit. So we are going to do it virtually at the time and location that a woman wants, so it’s very individualized in that way.”

Welcoming collaboration

Weeks said half of the women in the study will receive the program and half won’t so they can compare outcomes. For ethical reasons, she said the program will in the end be delivered to the women who didn’t initially receive it. 

“We’re really thinking about what kinds of supports do older women need versus younger women. It’s not always getting them out of that situation and moving them into a whole different life,” Weeks said. 

“That’s not necessarily what older women want. I found that finding really fascinating and I think that’s one thing that can be quite different than younger women experiencing this.”

At the end of the program, Weeks said they’ll interview the women who participated and the professionals who delivered. This is so they can understand its effectiveness beyond numbers and statistics.

They’ll also be seeking recommendations for improvements and modifications. 

“We hope that if it is effective, we will work with service providers who support women experiencing violence to see if this could become one of the programs that they can offer to older women,” Weeks said. 

“In all of our provinces there are family violence prevention services, so we’ll work really closely with them to see if they can incorporate this.”

Researchers also plan to share results with other jurisdictions outside of the Maritimes. The hope is to start the program this fall.

Those who deliver family violence services are invited to contact researchers if they’re interested in learning more about the project. 

“There’s always issues around funding these services in the community. It’s a relatively large research study. There’s lots of knowledge that we’ll be creating in the region,” Weeks said. 

“So definitely service providers can use our results to advocate for additional funds for the work that they do.”

‘Our region is often overlooked’

The provincial coordinator of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia (THANS), Ann de Ste Croix, said she was thrilled to learn about the project. 

“Anecdotally, it seems like there’s always a lot of research coming out of Ontario, for example, which is important as well,” de Ste Croix said in an interview. 

“But it’s nice to have some Atlantic Canadian-focussed research because I think our region is often overlooked. And it is different here in the Maritimes than it is in Ontario.”

Although women of all ages go to THANS shelters across the province, de Ste Croix said older women do face unique barriers.

“In our transition houses we see women of all ages and of all backgrounds, and I do think just in the general public knowledge that we tend to associate intimate partner violence or gender-based violence with younger women,” de Ste Croix said in an interview. 

“I feel that unfortunately older women’s voices are kind of silenced on this issue. It’s really important and it’s hopeful to see that there is work being done around this, and that this project was funded and there’s action being taken.”

Guilt and shame

One of the barriers faced by older women is stigma around violence. This, de Ste Croix said, is especially true among older generations who grew up being told violence at home is a private issue. That can make it more difficult for them to seek help. 

“There may be some shame and some guilt because for decades this is the messaging that they were getting,” de Ste Croix said. 

There are also often financial barriers. She said many older women are dependent on their abusive partners or on government subsidies. Being financially tied to an abuser can make it much more difficult to leave.

“After a lifetime of facing systemic discrimination based on their gender, and then this manifests into the gender wage gap, precarious and unpaid care work, a lot of older women find themselves without pensions or benefits,” de Ste Croix said. 

Caregiving is another issue faced by older women experiencing IPV, whether they’re being cared for by their abuser or caring for their abuser.

“There may be some guilt in leaving and stopping that person’s care, but there’s also a flipside,” de Ste Croix said.

“If they’re receiving care from their abuser, this may be deliberately reinforced and manipulated by their abuser so that they’re even more dependent on them as a way of maintaining control.”

‘We need to prove what we anecdotally know’

There are also urban versus rural considerations.

When it comes to rural communities, de Ste Croix said key community resources for older people ⁠— things like accessible transportation and access to medical professionals ⁠— are less readily available. She said this can further isolate them both physically and socially. 

“These studies are really important because anecdotally, the people doing the work on the front lines know. But we don’t have the time or the capacity to be able to gather this information and disseminate it,” de Ste Croix said.

“To make policy changes, to make those broad societal changes, we need to be able to prove what it is that we anecdotally know. So I do think they (research studies) go a really long way. Our transition houses and other community organizations can provide that knowledge and help in those research projects as well. It is part of the collaboration piece that’s so important in this sector to strengthen it.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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