Norma's project: Preventing the sexual assault of older women

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A new report sheds light on the role of nurses in preventing the sexual assault of older women. The report – called Norma’s Project – documents 65 stories about sexual assault shared by older women, their family members and service providers. Today, we consider three types of assault uncovered in the research.  It’s important that every nurse reads the Norma’s Project report because the silence around the sexual assault of older women creates a culture where it continues largely unchallenged.

Firstly, who is Norma?

Norma is 86. Since the death of her husband and son in 2002, she had been living independently at home with the support of her daughter and home support services. Norma was diagnosed with dementia in 2010. She was determined to remain in the family home although she did agree to occasional respite care at a residential aged care facility. One day, on return home from a respite stay, Norma was very distressed. She told her daughter she had been sexually assaulted by a staff member at the facility. The police and facility were notified, 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 recommended or taken by the police or facility.

Normas painting

A painting by Norma.

Norma no longer felt safe at home. In 2011 she moved into a local aged care facility, where she has been wonderfully looked after. Norma’s dementia is worsening and her health declining but she is happy, loved and safe.

In seeking to respond to Norma’s distress, her daughter discovered that the sexual assault of older women remains largely invisible in our community. In her life Norma has been a wife, mother, gardener and painter. Her oil painting reminds us that Norma’s experience was the catalyst that prompted the development of this project.

old woman

Norma’s Project: types of assault

Sexual assault and family violence

Existing patterns of family violence can continue into old age. Older women often don’t disclose sexual assaults because they’re embarrassed, ashamed or believe it’s their responsibility to provide for their husband’s sexual needs. Older women who disclose to their family may not be supported because of the widespread difficulty people have conceptualising a family member as someone who would commit a sexual assault.

Several stories were shared to Norma’s Project of nurses who noticed that an older woman was frightened and her husband would not let her be alone with service providers. In these cases, nurses were able to build rapport and trust and open up conversations about how things are going at home – leading to discussion about support services and strategies to prevent sexual assault.

Unwanted sexual contact and caring responsibilities

Some older women caring for male partners with hypersexuality or sexual disinhibition experienced what they referred to as ‘unwanted sexual contact’. Often these increased sexual demands led to physical trauma, insomnia and deteriorating health. Some women responded positively to nurses raising the topic of unwanted sexual contact and being provided with support strategies.

Sexual assault in institutions

Sexual assaults were reported to have occurred in a range of institutions, including residential and acute care. Staff, including nurses, were among the perpetrators, who often targeted older women with dementia because they would not be believed. The response of service providers to a report of sexual assault by a colleague was often one of shock, horror and disbelief. In many cases, responses were defensive: ‘my colleague wouldn’t do that – he is married and has kids – she is an older women – who would sexually assault her?’ There is still a widely held belief that sexual assault is about sexual attraction and that older women are asexual, sexually unattractive and therefore not the targets of sexual assault.

On the contrary, older people are sexual, old age is not a protective factor against sexual assault and sexual assault is often about power.

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The Norma’s Project research highlights the importance of preventing the sexual assault of older women. Nurses have the capacity to build the rapport and trust that enable conversations about assault or unwanted sexual contact to take place. It’s important that every nurse reads the Norma’s Project report because the silence around the sexual assault of older women creates a culture where it continues largely unchallenged.

Download the Norma’s Project report.

Norma’s Project was funded by the Australian Department of Social Services. It was part of the Sexual Health and Ageing Program based at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University. The research team included researchers from the National Ageing Research Institute, the McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing and the Centre for Women’s Health, Gender and Society at the University of Melbourne. The Project was conducted in partnership with Alzheimer’s Australia and the Council on the Ageing, Victoria.

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