Counseling Elderly Victims of Sexual Assault - Empathy and Understanding is Needed
By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
"In our last blog post, we shed light on the serious issue of sexual abuse of seniors and emphasized the importance of identifying the warning signs that should trigger immediate action," stated professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "However, it is equally important to delve deeper into the aftermath of such a traumatic experience and the implications it can have on the victim."
It is the primary responsibility of caregivers and healthcare professionals to be aware of their obligations when it comes to addressing cases of senior abuse. In many states, there are specific individuals known as mandated reporters who are legally required to report suspected cases of abuse. These individuals are typically in roles where they have close contact with seniors or those with disabilities and are more likely to observe or suspect abuse. The list of mandated reporters includes licensed physicians and surgeons, registered and licensed practical nurses, nursing home administrators, patient advocates, psychologists, social workers, and police officers.
"By being vigilant and responsive to the signs of abuse, mandated reporters can play a critical role in preventing further harm to seniors and ensuring that those who perpetrate these heinous acts are held accountable for their actions," said Attorney Connelly. "It is essential that caregivers and healthcare professionals understand the gravity of their role in protecting seniors and take appropriate action when abuse is suspected or confirmed."
In several states, including Rhode Island, it is mandatory for every citizen to report any suspected cases of elder abuse and financial exploitation. Once such abuse is reported and confirmed, investigators take over the case to ensure the abuse stops and the perpetrator is brought to justice. However, for the victim, this marks the beginning of a long and often arduous journey dealing with the aftermath of the traumatic event.
In cases of elder sexual abuse, counseling and understanding play a crucial role. Seniors with cognitive disabilities at varying stages of competency may require an assessment with the treatment team to determine if they are capable of participating in counseling. Additionally, medical follow-up is essential, including a check for any sexually transmitted diseases. Medical intervention, although necessary, can be intrusive and re-traumatizing for someone who has suffered sexual assault. If a disease is detected, medication is typically needed, and some drugs may have side effects that can exacerbate the senior's discomfort. As a result, the victim may continue to suffer the consequences even after the assaults have ceased.
Counseling the Victims
The success of counseling for seniors after the abuse or assault depends on several factors. Everyone is unique and brings their own history and experiences to any event, and reactions can vary greatly. It is important to recognize that everyone recovers from sexual violence differently, and therefore, counseling must be tailored to meet the unique needs of each victim. Proper counseling and follow-up care can help seniors regain their sense of autonomy and control while providing the tools they need to move forward from the trauma. Please take into consideration the following when counseling an elderly victim of assault:
1. Personal and Life History
Effective therapy for elder sexual abuse can be a complex process that depends on a variety of factors. One of the most important factors is the individual's ability to cope with the aging process and its related challenges. This can include physical limitations, changes in social roles, and emotional struggles. In addition, an individual's level of optimism and self-worth can play a significant role in their ability to engage in therapy and progress toward healing.
Another important factor is the individual's sense of power, control, and responsibility. Those who maintain a sense of agency and autonomy in their lives are generally more likely to respond positively to therapeutic interventions and work through the challenges they face. This can include taking an active role in their own treatment, setting goals and priorities, and making decisions about their care.
Effective therapy for elder sexual abuse may also involve addressing underlying issues such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. Victims may respond to a variety of approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, or trauma-focused therapy, to help the individual process their experiences and develop new coping skills.
Overall, successful therapy for elder sexual abuse requires a compassionate and holistic approach that takes into account the unique needs and experiences of each individual. By working collaboratively with a skilled and knowledgeable therapist, individuals can achieve greater self-awareness, healing, and empowerment.
2. Emotional State at the time of the assault
Studies have shown that seniors are disproportionately negatively affected by sexual assault compared to younger individuals. This can be attributed to a variety of factors such as the accumulation of multiple losses over time, including the death of friends and family members, reduced social status within their community due to aging, and a lack of support due to limited ability to connect with others.
Furthermore, seniors may experience the loss of their sense of purpose or identity due to retirement or physical limitations, which can exacerbate the emotional and physical impacts of a sexual assault. Given that seniors are often already dealing with recent losses, a sexual assault can be particularly devastating, leading to long-lasting physical and psychological harm.
3. The type of assault
For seniors, having to cope with the trauma of sexual assault can be an especially devastating experience. The physical harm caused by the assault is only one aspect of the trauma, as the emotional impact on the victim can be profound and long-lasting.
Depending on the type of assault and the circumstances surrounding it, the trauma experienced by the senior can be further compounded and may affect their mental and physical health. In order to aid in the healing and recovery process, it is crucial to provide support and resources for senior victims of sexual assault.
This can include counseling services, medical care, legal advice, and support groups. By offering these resources, seniors can take the necessary steps toward recovery and regain a sense of control over their lives. It is important to recognize that sexual assault can happen at any age and that seniors who have experienced this trauma should not be overlooked or neglected.
4. The senior’s perception of their own recovery
It is horrible enough that the perpetrator violated a senior, but because of their age, many suffer bruises, tears and other injuries that may never heal as a result of the sexual assault. Expecting them to respond well to counseling when every day they feel the pain from the assault does not bode well for a positive outcome. Again, when such injuries are present, a multidisciplinary approach is most effective.
5. The age of the counselor
As people age, they often become more aware of the differences in age and may start to identify themselves as "old". This self-awareness can sometimes create a significant barrier when it comes to discussing sensitive issues such as sexual assault with a mental health professional who is much younger, even as young as their own grandchild. This can be due to a lack of relatability and a potential fear of being judged or not taken seriously.
One way to overcome this hurdle is to assign a therapist who is closer in age to the individual. This could help to establish a stronger rapport and a greater sense of trust, which is essential for successful therapy. A therapist who is closer in age can provide a more relatable perspective and may be able to better understand the challenges that come with aging. They may also be able to offer more specialized advice on how to cope with these challenges, such as managing chronic pain or dealing with loss.
Overall, assigning a therapist who is closer in age to the individual can lead to more positive therapeutic outcomes, as they may feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. This can help to promote healing and improve their overall quality of life.
6. The victim recanting
Elderly individuals who have experienced abuse face numerous challenges when it comes to reporting it. Due to various factors such as shame, fear of retaliation, and the belief that their claims may not be taken seriously, most victims choose to remain silent. This is particularly true if the perpetrator is a family member or a caregiver in a healthcare facility, as the victim may feel trapped and unable to escape the situation.
As a result, these individuals are often forced to endure the trauma alone, leading to serious physical and psychological consequences. They may experience anxiety, depression, and a loss of trust in others. In some cases, they may also suffer from physical injuries, further exacerbating their pain and suffering. It is crucial that providers create a safe and supportive environment where the elderly individual can feel empowered to speak up and report any instances of abuse, so that they can receive the help and support they need to heal and move forward.
7. Being stoic
As individuals age, they may start to believe that they are expected to be stoic and keep their problems to themselves. This can lead to seniors staying quiet about their issues, even when they could benefit from help. However, an observant caregiver may be able to notice subtle changes in behaviors that signal something is amiss. These changes can include withdrawal from social activities, changes in sleeping habits, and even emotional outbursts that are out of character. By paying attention to these subtle cues, a caregiver can help a senior address their issues and improve their overall well-being.
Supporting a senior who has experienced abuse can be a challenging task, but it is also a crucially important one. Patience and persistence are key when working with these individuals. During your initial interactions, it is important to keep in mind that the senior may not mention the abuse immediately. However, being present and available is an important first step in building a trusting relationship. It may take weeks or even months before any real progress occurs, but consistency is key. Be reliable, show up when you say you will, and give the senior your undivided attention. This helps to build trust and creates a safe and comfortable environment for the senior to open up.
8. Don't Expect Miracles
Supporting a senior who has been abused can be a slow and steady process, and it's important to have patience and understanding. Although progress may not be immediate or dramatic, your presence and support can provide a crucial sense of comfort and security during this time. By being attentive and kind, you can make a meaningful impact on a senior's well-being and help them feel valued and cared for as they progress toward recovery.
The United States Department of Human Services also has a site called Eldercare Locator that can assist you in locating services. Please click on the picture below.
The Bottom Line
"If you have reason to believe or suspect that a family member or any loved one is a victim of sexual abuse or assault, it is crucial to take immediate action to protect them," stated Attorney Connelly. "No one should assume that a person is incapable of exploiting an elderly person just because they are a family member or senior care professional. If you notice any signs of elder abuse, including unexplained injuries, changes in behavior, sudden financial changes, or any other unusual behaviors, you should contact the authorities immediately."
The information provided in this blog is for general informational purposes only and should not be taken as legal, financial, or medical advice. The content, materials, and information presented in this blog may not be the most up-to-date information available regarding legal, financial, or medical matters. The purpose of this blog is to provide readers with an overview of the subject matter and a starting point for research. It is recommended that readers seek professional advice from an attorney, professional fiduciary advisor, or medical provider for specific legal, financial, or medical questions. Additionally, this blog may contain links to third-party websites that are included for the convenience of the reader or user. Please note that Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. does not necessarily recommend or endorse the contents of such third-party sites, and readers should exercise their own judgment when accessing these sites.