He husband would pore over bank statements, demand she hand over receipts for all expenditure and raise his voice if she couldn’t account for any small sums. Cathy said : “I paid for two cappuccinos, a juice and some cake in Starbucks, forgot to get a receipt and he accused me of lying. He was convinced I’d been meeting another man, not my daughter-in-law. When I texted her asking her to tell him it was true, he said I was trying to make him look mad.”
His controlling behaviour escalated. Her trips outside of the home were timed and all but non-essential outings were banned. Barely a day went by without her husband shouting at her, complaining about her cooking, her spending, her appearance, her housekeeping and : “He even said my breathing was too loud and kept him awake, so I slept on the sofa.”
Up to that point Cathy had considered domestic abuse to be something that happened to younger women, often with dependent children. Her three sons were all in their 40s and had their own families, and only one lived nearby.
Often, as in Cathy's case, the abuse only begins when the couple have retired and are spending much more time together alone at home. The problem is compounded by the fact that older victims are less likely to leave abusive relationships than younger ones. Whereas more than two-thirds of younger women victims, aged under 60, left their abuser in the year before seeking help, barely a quarter of older women did. In addition, one in three victims over 60 were still living with their abuser while seeking help, compared with just one in ten of younger victims.
Cathy's situation is mirrored in 'Do You See Her', a film produced by 'Women’s Aid'. Featuring Anne-Marie Duff as the daughter, Phil Davis as the abusing husband and Tessa Peake-Jones as his abused wife, it depicts this older couple hosting a happy family meal and goes on to show the abuse that happens when their children and grandchildren aren’t present.
'Women’s Aid', said : “We need to challenge the perceptions about who abuse happens to. The film is a stark reminder that even those closest to a woman who is being abused may not know what is going on behind closed doors. Any woman, of any age, can be forced to live in the invisible prison of domestic abuse – including those with adult children and grandchildren. We want to send a clear message to all older women experiencing abuse that you are not alone, we’re here for you. It is clear that older women are experiencing domestic abuse, often for years or even decades, yet they are the age group least likely to access support. That’s why we have pioneered our 'Change that Lasts' Project', working with frontline professionals in health and social care to help them identify and understand domestic abuse and feel confident enough to offer support and a helpful response to older survivors.”
Cathy began to realise that what she was experiencing was abuse when she saw her GP about panic attacks and saw a poster on the door of the surgery’s toilet listing abusive patterns of behaviour. She was encouraged to mention her situation to her GP responded by giving her appointment slips, which meant she could leave the house and phone a helpline without arousing suspicion.
She spoke to someone at 'Women’s Aid' who confirmed that her situation was abusive and that the abuse was not her fault. She was told that if she wanted to remain at home, she could look into legal avenues to have her husband evicted. But, she was afraid to seek practical help. “There was no way I could leave without a legal battle over the house, and my sons loved their father, the grandchildren loved him, everyone in my life knew him as well. I didn’t think I could start a whole new life, he’d always be in my life. And I was his carer. If I left, who would look after him every day? I didn’t want to live this way, but I didn’t want him to suffer.”
After five years of abuse, Cathy's husband suffered a second stroke and died a day later.
Cathy isn't alone. According to the 2016 report : 'SafeLives’ 2016 survey of IndependentDomestic Violence Advisor provision in England & Wales', an estimated
120,000 women over 65 had experienced at least one form of abuse
and the lion's share of this is meted out by the old men with whom they spend their lives and is a problem which receives little or no public attention.