Seaver talks about the Milwaukee Women's Center and its older
battered women's program.
nexus, Volume 1, Issue 3, October 1995.
1991, the Milwaukee Women's
Center (MWC) launched one of the nation's first programs designed
to serve elderly battered women. Its inception marked the culmination
of a year of planning by the Task Force on Battered Women of Milwaukee
County, a group of 30 professionals from the field of aging who
were concerned that Milwaukee's traditional aging and elder abuse
service programs were not adequately responding to the needs of
abused older women. MWC's program includes a support group, case
management, shelter, and counseling from volunteers. Carole Seaver,
Director of the program, talks about the program and the women
Could you start by telling us about your clients and what brings
them to MWC?
The program is for elderly women who have been physically or emotionally
abused and those who are healing from past abuse. Our clients
range in age from 53 to 91. Two-thirds have been abused by their
spouses while the others have been victimized by their children.
The abuse includes physical assault, threats to kill, and sustained
In recent years, there's been heightened awareness about spouse
abuse among the elderly. We've heard about "late onset abuse"
which begins in old age and "spouse abuse grown old," situations
in which the abuse began earlier in life and continues into old
age. Do these patterns apply to the women you see?
There are some cases that appear to be "late onset abuse" but
I think that what usually happens is that aging issues exacerbate
what was already there. I'm thinking of one case in which the
husband was extremely abusive to his wife verbally. He was becoming
frail and his frustration with his multiple illnesses and impairments
was certainly a contributing factor. But the couple's children
contend that they had seen the abuse earlier; they felt it had
just become worse as their father became more frail and dependent.
In one-half of the cases of spouse abuse that we have seen, the
women were abused by second or third partners. What's interesting
to me about these cases is that the women's first husbands were
usually not abusive. This contradicts the notion that certain
women are attracted to abusive men and will repeatedly seek out
abusive relationships. The abusive husbands tend to be Jekyl/Hyde
types, real charmers, who the women meet in mid-life when they're
convinced that they aren't going to hook up with anyone again.
Is money a motive in these cases?
That's a big part of it. Money and housing. In several of the
cases, the women came into the marriages with houses or money
and the men just moved in. Or, the new husbands sold their wives'
homes and hid the money in assets that the wives don't know about
- some real tricky deals. One second husband refused to drive
his wife to the hospital when she needed surgery, claiming that
she was deliberately trying to impoverish him with all of her
medical care. Eventually, she became so disgusted with him that
she wanted a divorce. At that point, he threatened to kill her.
Domestic violence theory asserts that abuse is the exercise of
control over less powerful individuals. In elder abuse, disability
and dependency seem to affect risk. What are your thoughts on
how dependency contributes to domestic violence?
The literature on elder abuse has portrayed victims as frail,
impaired people who are dependent on their abusers for essential
care. That is not what we've seen here. While 18 of the 120 women
I've worked with have had significant impairments, only five were
dependent on abusive partners or children for their care. The
other 13 managed to take care of themselves or received help from
other people. The abusers don't fit the classic profile either
because many are retired or getting frail. They are not men who
are feeling very powerful. They are more dependent on their partners
now than they were at an earlier age when they were out working
and earning a living.
Your program serves victims of emotional abuse as well as physical.
Some may question whether or not emotional abuse really constitutes
"battering." Why such a strong focus on emotional abuse?
We wanted to include emotional abuse because most women say that
it hurts the most. Verbal abuse also frequently escalates into
physical abuse; men who threaten their partners often carry out
their threats. Verbal abuse can also result in physical harm since
older women are prone to heart attacks or strokes which are stress
related. One of the women I worked with died a few weeks ago at
the age of 83. She had been married for 63 years and was in the
process of getting a divorce but her heart gave out. I think the
accumulated stress of constant verbal abuse was so intense that
it wore her down. She was a member of our support group and was
looking forward to coming back. But she didn't make it and didn't
enjoy the years of peacefulness that we'd hoped for.
What makes a woman decide to leave after 63 years?
I think you have to look at the broader question of what makes
women decide to break free from abusive relationships. I think
its a combination of an extreme threat and solid support. Usually
there's been an incident or threat that is very scary. Or maybe
the abuse is wearing down the woman's health or her mental health
and she realizes that if she gets free, she'll have a few more
years without all the trauma. I had one woman who was dying of
cancer go through a divorce proceeding because she wanted to be
free even at that point. It's also a question of having solid
support, a son or daughter or friend who can really be counted
factor that's very important is how the system responds when she
does seek help. This is a real problem because the justice system
isn't prepared to deal, for example, with a marriage that's being
dissolved after 40 or 50 years. I had one case in which a judge
ordered a woman to sell her home and divide the assets. Selling
her home was the last thing she wanted to do and there were other
options available. The judge just wasn't educated about the options
or sensitive to the issues.
abusive situations also takes time. Experience shows that it takes
an average of 7 or 8 attempts to finally leave an abusive relationship.
There is, what I call, the Bermuda Triangle of choices: to leave,
to stay, or to fight back. Each of these options is incredibly
difficult and fraught with dangers.
of the first women I worked with took two years to leave. The
professsional who had referred her to me thought that she was
just talking and would never actually leave. She called the client
a "help-rejecting complainer" which I thought was an interesting
concept. She was not able to see that domestic violence involves
a lot of back and forth and ambivalence.
Let's switch gears and talk about the services you provide. Let's
start with the support group.
The group, which ranges in size from 7 to 12 members, has been
going for about two years. We usually start sessions by focusing
on a particular question or problem that the group has identified.
We talk a lot about power and control so that group members understand
the dynamics of family violence. When they come to the group,
I give them an article on verbal self defense which we discuss
and they develop safety plans to protect themselves from future
abuse. Each time we go around the group and hear how everyone's
week has gone. We make sure that each woman has a turn to speak
and that she knows that we want to hear from her.
just amazing what the group means to the women and what we've
all learned. It's a transforming experience. You have to understand
the isolation and shame of living with abuse. There are all kinds
of reasons why victims can't talk about their abuse. Other people
don't want to hear about it or give ridiculous advice. Victim's
children don't want to get in the middle of their parents' conflicts.
But when the women come to the support group, they can actually
talk about it, laugh, and cry.
a real relief. They also talk about resources and give each other
tips on coping and surviving. The incredible things these women
What are the other services you provide?
The Women's Center runs a shelter which, until recently, wasn't
serving many older women. In the last year and a half, we've had
9 placements. While it's not a lot of people, it shows that if
you have special programming and you let professionals know that
it's appropriate to direct older women to a shelter, they will
use it. We also provide case management, which is aimed at helping
the women see that they have choices. We talk about what they
need, where they want to go, and how long they want to take. My
role is to tell them what their options are—not what to do. We
assign volunteers to women who lack the kind of support they need
to break out of abusive relationships--the friend or relative
who is solidly in their corner. The volunteer can spend much more
time than I can just talking.
Your experiences seem to contradict a lot of stereotypes about
older women. Some people believe that older women aren't going
Someone told me when I started this program, "these women aren't
going anywhere." And yet a third of them have freed themselves
of abuse by leaving or evicting the abuser. Another third are
working toward change and the rest are pretty much saying, "well,
it wasn't so bad, I am going to go back." The hopeful message
is that you can get some sort of peacefulness, a different life,
in older age and that it's possible to do something about abuse.
We had also heard that with support groups, you couldn't combine
the women who were staying in abusive relationships with those
who were leaving because they would be at each other's throats.
But that hasn't happened at all. The group is just so glad when
someone finally gets their divorce or is free of the abuser. They
rejoice in it.
Do you have any suggestions for people in other communities who
are interested in starting programs for older battered women?
I think that support groups are the best way to start. Older women
will get more from each other than from any other source. I would
say that the best outreach strategy is to work with professionals
who work with older people. I have even had referrals from foot
doctors. I also have a lot of support from the local Older Women's
League. They have been my most stalwart supporters right from
the beginning and have provided volunteers, clerical help, donations,
and emotional support to me. They also advocate for social policy
that provides more options for older women so that they don't
have to stay in abusive situations because they have nowhere else
to the nexus "reading room"
to the Domestic Violence section