The death of Mary Russell, 81, from a bleed to the brain after an alleged assault by her 88-year-old husband Albert, has highlighted the fact that domestic violence among older couples is far more common than is generally thought.
Their age often means police, social care and health professionals are not as aware of the problem as they should be. "The abuse, whether physical or psychological, is often very long-term, perhaps throughout a 40-year marriage. The abuser can often present as very frail: if the woman has a disability or is in failing health it can add to her vulnerability," said Mary Mason, director of Solace Women's Aid, a London domestic violence service that has Equality and Human Rights Commission funding to develop a project for older women.
"Many people have a stereotype in their head of a woman who experiences domestic or sexual violence," she said. "Older women often tell us that they don't think they will be believed when they go to agencies for help.
"The abuse they experience is often so normalised that it's hard to think about leaving. Women in this age group may be reluctant to think about moving into a refuge to be safe but once there they can receive very specific support to help them find safety, begin their recovery and achieve independence."
She described a couple of cases her service has worked with. One involved a 72-year-old woman married to a man of 82 who had inflicted physical and emotional abuse on her for 51 years.
Police were called to their home in May 2010 after he hit her with his walking stick. He was not charged with any offence and remains in the marital home. She is currently living with her daughter. Solace is helping the woman to explore divorce proceedings and is trying to get the husband into sheltered accommodation so his wife can move back into the marital home.
Another Solace case concerns a 67-year-old woman who has suffered physical and psychological abuse from her husband for 40 years. Both have moderate learning disabilities, live in a nursing home and want to remain together. A Solace worker is monitoring the situation and advising on the best way to keep the woman safe.
Bridget Penhale, reader in mental health of older people at the University of East Anglia, is one of the few people studying this hidden area. She is working on a new EU-funded, six-country project examining the prevalence of domestic violence among older people.
"Very few of these cases go to court because of the age of those involved, so we are looking at police files to see how many callouts police have responded to involving older people and domestic violence," Penhale said.
"We are picking up on a lot of cases of assault and serious assaults on older women by their partners. It may be the case that the man has cognitive impairment, the police investigate and the CPS say it's not worth prosecuting. We want to look at the police arresting perpetrators as part of their response to this problem.
"As a society we have become much more aware and attuned to the fact that violence affects younger women in their relationships but the situation as it relates to older women is nowhere near as recognised. Older women don't know where to go to get help. Services specifically for them are few and far between."
Penhale hopes that a European-wide awareness raising campaign will be launched to improve understanding of, and responses to, the problem. She is working with the police and criminal justice agencies to develop a training module for officers. "We hope to pilot this with at least one force during next summer so that it can then be fine-tuned and made ready for further dissemination."
I got married at the age of 25 and right from the start there were little hints of what was to come from my husband.
I was put down all the time and made to feel worthless and inferior. At first I tried to put everything he did to me to the back of my mind. In the kind of society I was living in I wasn't allowed to acknowledge these things and didn't talk to anyone about what was happening to me. Over a period of years the verbal and psychological abuse I suffered from my husband completely eroded my confidence.
I wanted to go to college to pick up my studies but my husband told me I wasn't capable of doing this. I believed him.
He told me that my job was to look after the house and garden and to care for our daughter. What started as psychological violence escalated into physical violence after my daughter was born. My husband used to hold me against the wall by my throat and twist my arm. I didn't want to acknowledge that this was violence.
After my daughter grew up and left home my husband became more physically violent towards me, although hitting me and bashing me against the wall rarely left marks that I could complain about to anyone even if I'd wanted to. I put up with this for 36 years and eventually walked out at the age of 60 and sought help.
When I walked out I didn't know who I was. I genuinely believed what my husband kept telling me, that I was worthless and useless and wouldn't be able to cope with life without him. I left my home and my job and came to London with nothing. I spent 18 months in a refuge and gradually regained my self-esteem.
I learnt to cope with life again. I'm now in my own home and at last I've resumed my studies."
• Theresa's name has been changed to protect her identity
• Solace Women's Aid Advice line Freephone number 0808 802 5565 National Domestic Violence Helpline 0808 2000 247.
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