At the Older Battered Women's Program in Lynn, Mass., counselor Katie Galenius finds that for her clients, emotional abuse is more common than physical violence — and often harder to get over.
"It's those negative messages that play in your head over and over and over again. That you're not good enough; that nobody would want you; that you're a bad mother; you're a bad wife; you don't have any friends," Galenius says.
And, she says, the woman "doesn't have anyone talking in her other ear saying, 'That's not true: You are a good person, he's wrong. He's trying to take away your confidence and your self-esteem. Don't let him.' "
Galenius is that person whispering in a woman's other ear, giving support to try to wash away those years of cutting remarks and put-downs. Eleven percent of older people say they've experienced physical violence, sexual abuse or emotional abuse in the last year, according to a recent report for the Justice Department.
Galenius, a social worker, has run the center for 11 years. She treats women age 50 and older. The oldest woman she ever helped was 90.
Women come to see her or attend the support group meetings she holds on the second floor of Greater Lynn Senior Services. The space is as comfy as a grandmother's living room, with high-back chairs, lace curtains and the smell of coffee from the pot on the table.
Support After Decades Of Abuse
One client, Jane, was 73 when she first came to the center. "She was living with emotional abuse at home," Galenius said. Her husband "wouldn't let the grandchildren visit. He wouldn't let her visit with the other women in the complex that she lived in. He wouldn't even let her go out and get the mail until after the mailman left the complex, because he thought, you know, she may be flirting with him."
Jane's physical health was failing, and she was having a very difficult time, says Galenius. But she'd been married for 48 years. For religious and family reasons, she didn't want to divorce her husband, but she felt trapped in the marriage. Galenius says that feeling is common among elderly women.
Galenius told Jane that even without a formal divorce, she could still go to court to get a share of their joint assets.
After four months of counseling and checking with lawyers, Jane just left behind whatever money or assets she might have been entitled to and left her husband. She took some clothes, her statue of the Virgin Mary and her $300 monthly check from Social Security, and moved into an apartment of her own.
She returns to support groups at the Older Battered Women's Program so that other women can see that it wasn't too late for her to change her life.
The program in Massachusetts is one of only a dozen or so stand-alone centers in the country set up to counsel older women in abusive relationships. According to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, older women anywhere can find help by calling their area agency on aging.