As a community, we are increasingly recognising that family violence can affect all the relationships, including those of older people, within the family. We are much more aware that older people may experience abuse from family members and we know what some of the warning signs are, but we still have a long way to go.
We need to become more aware of coercive control and how, as a form of elder abuse, it can be perpetrated on older family members. Sometimes what looks like care to an outsider can actually be something else.
What is coercive control?
The term ‘elder abuse’ is often used when an older person experiences harm or abuse from adult children, spouses or intimate partners, or other family members. Like all forms of family violence, elder abuse may be not only physical, but also psychological, financial or sexual.
Coercive control, which can encompass all these things, is a relatively new term. It’s used to describe patterns of behaviour where a person seeks to control and manipulate the life of another person.
It’s a type of abuse that often starts slowly but increases over time, and it is frequently mixed with loving and conciliatory behaviour from the perpetrator. This inconsistency, and the fact that it does not always involve physical violence, means coercive control can be difficult to recognise and very difficult to prove.
While coercive control is most often used by men against women in the context of family or intimate relationships, it can be used by anyone in a relationship of trust with another person—including older people. In fact, coercive control is often a feature of elder abuse.
Examples of coercive control
What does coercive control of an older person look like?
They could experience it from their partner, whether it’s a long-term marriage or a new relationship.
A husband using threats or violence to keep control of all financial decisions, belittling and harassing his wife, or forbidding her to have any contact with friends or family might be a situation of coercive control.
Another example might be a new partner wanting to move in immediately, so they know where the person is at all times, or using threats and aggressive jealousy to be in control of the relationship.
Controlling behaviours might include ongoing demands for domestic duties or sexual compliance, as well as name-calling and severe criticism.
In previous decades, generational attitudes to marriage and patriarchal values might have condoned some of these behaviours, but people of all ages are increasingly understanding now that this is not acceptable.
The deceptive nature of coercive control
As people age, family members or close friends often step in to help out. Their support can be welcome when the older person needs some additional help with things like keeping up personal care, getting to appointments or making financial decisions.
Because we as a society accept (and value) family members helping older people, we don’t always see when they might be crossing a line. People who wish to influence or manipulate an older family member for their own benefit will often use coercive control to do so under the cover of ‘simply providing care’.
Unnoticed by anyone else, the family member might take over matters against the older person’s wishes, cut them out of decision-making and isolate them from friends and family. They also might take on management of the older person’s finances and limit their access to their own money or property.
Why don’t older people speak up?
Many people struggle with asking for and accepting help as they get older, particularly if it feels like it signals the end of personal independence. In situations of coercive control, it becomes even harder. Other thoughts and feelings can also contribute to a reluctance to complain.
Feelings of being a burden on their adult children and that they ‘shouldn’t make a fuss’ can stop an older person from complaining if they feel the family member is being too controlling.
An older person experiencing elder abuse from a spouse or other family member may also be reluctant to speak up because they feel they have limited alternative options for support.
There might also be threats that much-needed practical help will be withdrawn if the older person doesn’t, for example, change their will or sign over property the way the family member wants them to.
If the older person lacks income or requires ongoing care, it can be hard to make others listen.
With coercive control in particular, the older person may fear the consequences of standing up for their rights and speaking up. They might be told that if they complain, they will be punished—sent to an aged care home or not be allowed visitors.
They may also fear they won’t be believed if they haven’t said something about the abuse earlier.
What you can do about coercive control
Reluctance to speak up can make coercive control particularly difficult to identify in situations of elder abuse.
As our community understanding of family violence grows, it is important we remember that older people are among those affected by coercive control behaviours. Developing our awareness of the prevalence, warning signs and behaviours relating to coercive control of older people can all play a part in ensuring their safety and security.
Follow public discussions, government policy developments and media reports about coercive control.
Be prepared to ask questions if you suspect an older person may be experiencing this form of abuse.
Listen to an older person if they reach out to you for help and do what you can to support them.
Watch or listen to ‘The power in understanding patterns of coercive control’, a 2021 webinar by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
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