Silence enables 'sexual assault of older women'

When Philomena's* 82-year-old mother-in-law told her she'd been raped by a staff member at a nursing home in Victoria, her first reaction was disbelief.

Not disbelief that it had happened, but shock that anyone could sexually assault someone who was "so frail and elderly and vulnerable".

At the time, Norma* was still living at home with the help of support services but Philomena and her husband had organised some respite care for her while they went on a short holiday. When they picked up Norma, it was evident something was wrong.

"Norma, who was in the early stages of dementia, was very distressed when we picked her up that afternoon but could not articulate what was wrong," Philomena said.

"The next morning we sat her down and it became clear that a male staff member in the aged-care facility had assaulted her in the early hours of one morning.

" ... She had tried to defend herself, she had told him he could not do that, but she said he had leant over her and said 'I can do anything I want'. I can only imagine the sense of powerlessness and fear she must have felt - it still sends chills through me."

The couple put aside their own distress, their shock and their anger, and asked Norma what she wanted them to do.

"Given her generation, and the sense of shame these things can often cause, we agonised about what she would want us to do but she wanted us to let the authorities know," Philomena said. "She was worried he might be doing the same thing to other older women, or even young girls."

They notified the police and the aged-care facility, the complaint was investigated and the perpetrator identified. However, due to the absence of physical evidence, the lack of corroborating witnesses and Norma's diagnosis of dementia, no further action was taken by the police or the aged-care facility.

"Norma may not have been his first victim, or his last, and that haunts us," Philomena said.

"The attack put her over a precipice of emotional distress, she has become more fearful and mistrusting.

"Her dementia progressed rapidly and she had to move into permanent care at another aged-care facility, where she receives wonderful care by highly trained staff and there are protocols in place to protect residents."

Norma's experience was the catalyst for Norma's Project, a research project based at La Trobe University in Victoria that aims to raise awareness of, and prevent, the sexual assault of older women.

"The sexual assault of older women is something we've not talked about previously and I think we as a society in Australia are totally unprepared for this conversation," said Dr Catherine Barrett, the chief researcher.

"It's that silence that enables the sexual assault of older women to continue. The fact is older women are being sexually assaulted by staff and other elderly residents at aged-care facilities; they are also being sexually assaulted by family members and visitors."

The lack of information and awareness meant many older women were simply not believed when they did have the courage to speak up, Dr Barrett said.

"It's a myth that sexual assault only happens to young women who have too much to drink and go out dancing," she said.

"There's often the perception that it couldn't possibly have happened, that a younger male staff member couldn't possibly be attracted to an older woman.

"People we've spoken to have told us they've received comments like 'she must be confused', 'it's just the dementia' or 'she's remembering something from her childhood'.

"We also know some women don't even report it because they are worried they won't be believed, or they are frightened or feel ashamed."

As part of Norma's Project (normasproject.org.au), researchers are gathering women's stories and collecting other evidence about the factors that make older women vulnerable to sexual assault. Dr Barrett said researchers were working with health and community workers and service providers to help develop prevention strategies and improve the response of services.

"The strongest message we are getting is that there is a need for education," she said.

"Education of community and aged-care service providers and staff; education of older women about their rights; and education of family and community members."

Philomena hopes Norma's Project will stop other older women going through what her mother-in-law did.

"This project will start conversations, it will heighten the need for policy and for education but most importantly, it will bust the myth that sexual assault is only about randy men and young women," she said.

"Sexual assault is not always about sexual attraction; it's about people who gain a sense of excitement having control, having power over vulnerable people."

* Surnames withheld

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