There’s no retirement from domestic abuse
In three tragedies involving older couples in Devon women aged 59, 71 and 83 were violently killed by men aged 63, 66 and 73, whom they had known for over 40 years. Their relationships varied: separated pending divorce; long term unmarried partners; engaged after both being widowed. In each case the killing was probably the first ever physical assault, but there were other forms of abuse. Research finds domestic abuse as common for older people as younger, but less often reported.
Lesson: Domestic abuse knows know age limits. It can end in murder without earlier violence.
Naming the problem
None of the victims thought themselves at risk of violence. All recognised difficulties in their relationship, and in two cases that their partner was increasingly trying to control them. They did not call this “domestic abuse”.
The oldest victim’s partner, through moodiness and self-neglect, got her to reduce her social life, abandon plans and focus on his perceived need. He used his skill with words to hurt, including comments on her family. Facing the normal limitations of aging herself, and concerned for his welfare, she was increasingly vulnerable to this exploitation. She used terms such as “being a pain”, “making things difficult”, “vile” or “selfishness” to describe his behaviour.
The divorcing couple’s marriage had survived earlier rifts arising from the husband’s self-centred behaviour. Fearing shame, he tried for months to conceal the separation from all but close family, lying about it to doctors. Realising his wife, soon to retire, had new plans for her life, he put all the blame on her. In long bullying emails he made unreasonable demands and false accusations, threatening to shame her.
The engaged couple were unable to resolve mismatched expectations of their new life together. The only indication of control was from the victim, discouraging her fiancé’s contacts with his friends and family. He referred to her as “a nag” and too “needy”. While he confided in GPs and was advised to seek help from Relate, she thought they should sort things out without involving others. It is not always clear cut who the victim is and who the perpetrator is.
Domestic abuse services find older victims less likely to contact them for advice, which could have been given in all these cases. Those who do not see themselves as “battered wives” may not realise they can get help for non-violent abuse.
Lesson: Signpost help on domestic abuse to older women and men using images and language that connect with their experience and address control as well as violence.
The victims had their own phones and cars and could reach local facilities. Only the oldest did not use the internet. All had regular contact with friends, and two had adult children and other family members who kept in touch. They assured those concerned about them that there was no violence, but kept the extent of their emotional pain private.
Two of the men enjoyed hobbies with friends and often saw family members. The oldest had no children and had lost touch with former colleagues. Unlike his partner, he did not seek new friendships or join local organisations on retiring to Devon. This man attempted to take his own life after the murder. The other two succeeded – one at the crime scene, the other in prison. The five deaths were unexpected and shocking to friends and family. Devon’s Suicide Prevention Strategy recognises the importance of encouraging men to talk about suicide risk. Stigma may deter some who want to seem the strong member of the family.
Lesson: Friends and family are important sources of support, but older people find it hard to share concerns they see as private.
Health services, an important point of contact with older people, had seen all six men and women several times in the two years before the killings. For the women this was for physical problems normal for their age, with no signs of domestic abuse. All the men saw their GPs about depression, and received appropriate help. However, the husband did so reluctantly, understating his symptoms and the other two denied any thoughts of harming others. National research links male depression and domestic violence.
Health services in Devon continue to improve training to help front line staff recognise and respond to domestic abuse. This includes the IRIS (identification and referral to improve safety) scheme for GP practices, which started in 2018. Older people make more use of health services, and may see them as a more acceptable place to share concerns than going direct to police or a specialist service.
Lesson: Healthy relationships matter to older people’s wellbeing, and health services are well placed to help them recognise and avoid abuse.
Money and homes
All those involved were comfortably off. The victims had income and savings under their own control, and had retired, or were about to, from careers with responsibility. However, housing was an issue for all. The widow had sold her home and moved in with her fiancé, expecting they would buy somewhere to suit them both: but he wanted to stay in his family home. Had they separated, she would have had to start again on her own, probably renting. The divorcing wife used a recently inherited house to live in, but her husband, who was disputing assets, got into the house in order to kill her.
National analysis of domestic homicides highlights risk in the first year of separation. The oldest couple jointly owned a home which was no longer suitable given their frailty. The man, who had played the main role in their past housing choices, refused to contemplate moving. The victim had started to think about leaving, but her husband had never before lived alone, and she may have worried that he would be unsafe on his own.
Lesson: Older victims may avoid ending an abusive relationship if worried about how to find a new home or their or the perpetrator’s ability to live alone. Signposting advice on housing options and on safety during separation can help.
This bulletin draws on Domestic Homicide Review cases 7, 8 and 9.
For local advice on responding to domestic abuse visit our sexual violence and domestic violence and abuse page.