Why we need to understand the experiences of older men

Dr Elizabeth Bates (University of Cumbria) and Dr Nikki Carthy (Teesside University)

Since the feminist movement of the 1970s there has been a developing body of literature that has helped us understand intimate partner violence (IPV) in terms of its prevalence and its impact on families. Through this 50 year period, we have also seen the development of different strands of research that have encompassed the complexity of the issue; for example, where the original focus had been primarily on working with women as victims and men as perpetrators, we now see a wealth of research highlighting women’s violence, men’s victimisation, and the prevalence within LGBTQ+ groups.

A further “strand” has included exploring the experiences of older people, but this has primarily focused on working with older women and has neglected to highlight and understand how IPV may change or continue for older men.

Where research and crime statistics have indicated that physical IPV decreases over the lifespan, other research has found that this is not necessarily always the case, and indeed when it is, there is a further possibility that there are increased rates of other non-physical forms of abuse. Some studies reveal that as the physical aspect lessens, there were increases in psychological and emotional abuse, thought to reflect the advanced social and verbal skills of these groups.

We further know from this research that there are many barriers for older people in help-seeking and reporting that include greater financial dependency, the normalisation of abuse, and perhaps less confidence in speaking out related to the lack of campaigns targeted at this group.

Whilst these experiences and barriers are likely to share some similarity with older male groups, it is also possible that there are gender and age specific differences. For example, within the wider male victim literature (which has typically worked with younger men), we see gender-specific experiences such as greater use of legal and administrative aggression and false allegations by women. This extends to the barriers to help-seeking too where we see reference to the masculine gender role, gendered policy and practice, and fear of losing children to a system that favours mothers.

In a small-scale pilot study conducted we analysed the experiences of eight older men within a wider data set that qualitatively explored men’s experiences of IPV. This analysis revealed that men experienced significant physical violence and coercive controlling behaviour. They further reported age-specific experiences related to financial abuse and longevity of the relationship (and abuse). One man described the way in which his partner had tried to convince him he had dementia to take control of his life and finances.  The findings from this study are important, but there is a need to explore this issue on a greater scale to capture a wider range of older men’s experiences.

To try and address this gap, we’ve recently launched a new study working with other colleagues at the University of Cumbria; we hope to expand our understanding of IPV victim experiences by working with men over 60 who have experienced aggression and/or control from a female partner. Our anonymous online survey includes questions about experiences of aggression and control, as well as specific age-related questions to explore if these experiences changed or continued as men got older.  Figures by the ManKind Initiative suggest that anonymity when men are first disclosing is critical, specifically their data found 70% of the men who had called the helpline had only done so because it was anonymous and 53% had never told anyone else about their abuse. We hope that by using this method, we can broaden the sample captured and give older men an opportunity to have their stories heard confidentially.  We also recognise that some men, perhaps particularly in this older group, may also not wish to engage with this online and so we are also offering semi-structured interviews in Carlisle, or via phone/Skype for any men who would prefer to communicate that way.

For more information about the study or to take part in the survey, please click here: survey link; alternatively if you would like to take part but would rather do a phone or Skype interview, then please get in touch with Elizabeth.Bates@cumbria.ac.uk

For a more in depth discussion about the need to work inclusively within this area, please see Carthy, Bates and Policek (2019).