Security Research

Intimate Partner Violence against Elderly Women – Austrian Country Report



Project Management:   Dr. Birgitt Haller
Implementation:   Mag. Dr. Helga Amesberger
  Dr. Birgitt Haller
Financed by:   European Commission via Deutsche Hochschule der Polizei
  Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection
  Federal Chancellery/Federal Minister for Women and Civil Service
Concluded in:   December 2010

This two-year research project had its sights on the situation of elderly women, who have become victims of violence in partnerships. In the course of 2009 and 2010, seven research institutions in six countries – including besides the Institute for Conflict Research, the Deutsche Hochschule der Polizei und Zoom – Gesellschaft für prospektive Entwicklungen e.V. in Germany, the University of Bialystok in Poland, the Academy of Sciences in Hungary, the Sheffield University in the UK, and the CESIS Institute in Portugal – embarked on pertinent research work.

Method mix was the methodological approach of choice: it combined literature analysis and the collection of existing data, questionnaire-based surveys of institutions that might be faced with the issue as well as guideline-based interviews with experts in diverse organisations and it involved female victims of partner violence.

The literature analysis and the interpretation of the available data revealed that in Austria data on partner violence against elderly women are, at best, fragmentary and, at worst, non-existent. On top of that, the few studies and statistics are in part inconsistent in terms of categorisation (e.g. when it comes to age groups or perpetrators), they are limited to individual regions, are explorative in character and/or fail to differentiate by sex or relationship with the perpetrator.

Most of the organisations (a total of 111) that participated in the questionnaire-based survey in the autumn of 2009 have made domestic violence their top priority, followed by violence against women and girls or women's psychosocial risk factors. Overall, about one half of the respondent institutions had to deal with partner violence against elderly women between 2006 and 2009 (case figures remaining largely unchanged). Owing to insufficient funding but also to the prevailing social conditions, the respondents are rather dissatisfied with the quality of their provision for elderly women who are victims of partner violence. In their experience, working with elderly people requires an amount of attention they are incapable of providing.

As regards partner violence in old age, the 30 experts interviewed hold two opposing positions. In their majority they observe a drop in physical and sexual violence concomitant with an unchanged or increasing level of mental and economic abuse and with invariably recurring physical assaults. On the other hand, there are those who detect an increase in violence, both in terms of intensity and frequency, which is supposed to be connected with the fact that (negative) character traits become more pronounced in old age. To this comes that men frequently see no more purpose in life once they retire, their social position changes and awareness of physical problems is heightened. Some men find this hard to cope with and resort to violence as a means of compensation.

Among the social characteristics shared by elderly female clients is, first and foremost, economic dependence on their partners and a rather low educational level. However, the interviews suggest that extra differentiation between the "younger elderly", the 60 to 70-year-olds, and the "old elderly" is called for when it comes to income and school education.

Older women exposed to partner violence rarely seek help, and if they do, what prompts them is severe physical violence. As a rule, the people belonging to their social milieu are aware of the violence they suffer, but frequently turn out to be "helpless helpers". According to the experts, doctors are the most important contact persons for victims of violence, but they, too, are in their majority criticised for ignorance and for deferring action far too long.

The ten women interviewed for this study had lived for decades in violent relationships before seeking professional help. Were it not for the police to report incidents of domestic violence to the violence prevention centres and for these centres to contact victims of violence, by far fewer women would receive support from victim protection services. What comes into play besides economic dependence, which is the prime motive for remaining in violent relationships, are worldviews and social standards for family life and the roles of women and men as well as a lack of perspective regarding the declining years. Finally the dependence of female victims is reported to be enhanced by age and the long duration of relationships; the interviews showed that age-induced infirmity only played a role as regarded the husbands.

All the women interviewed reported mental and physical violence, and most of them also financial violence. Three of those questioned had experienced sexual violence; another two intimated that they had suffered such violence. With one exception all the women interviewed stated that the frequency of assaults had continuously increased in the course of their married lives, and almost all of them had experienced growing violence after their partners' retirement.

The interviews with the victims of partner violence also revealed that very few doctors seriously attempted to intervene (in some cases even tending to prescribe psychotropic drugs for several years) and hesitated overlong before reporting bodily injuries detected when examining the women to the police.

In the main, the proposals made by the experts interviewed aim for fastest possible access to consultation and support facilities and for age-appropriate support concepts and programmes. Sensitising and training doctors and nursing staff in the early detection of violence is considered imperative. What is called for, in particular, is better cooperation between care providers; the introduction of case management, for example, would facilitate the effective and less expensive provision of support. There is also a lack of age-appropriate and affordable housing for both victims and perpetrators (and in particular for mentally ill perpetrators of violence). Since the empowerment of the victims of violence presupposes awareness of violence but also a sufficient amount of (economic) independence, the response in terms of consultation and/or care would have to be age-appropriate and commensurate to the living conditions and/or perceptions of older women.

The results of the research project can be looked up in six national reports (in English and in the national language) and in an (English) summary report, and can be accessed for downloading at http://www.ipvow.org