Listen: Abuse in LL (Stawicki)-4554

MPR’s Elizabeth Stawicki profiles a woman who shares a lifetime of domestic abuse. It’s a story that is seldom spoken about.

As the population ages, researchers say they're beginning to see a troubling trend - more cases of physical abuse between older couples. While support systems for domestic abuse victims have come a long way over the last 30 years, they aren't necessarily well-suited for older victims.


2010 The Gracie Allen Award, Radio - Outstanding Hard News Feature category


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[PERRY COMO, "PRISONER OF LOVE"] (SINGING) Alone from night to night you'll find me

ELIZABETH STAWICKI: The year was 1946. Perry Como had the top album at the time, "Prisoner of Love." The world was no longer at war, but Mabel's battle was just beginning. Mabel was 20, living in a small southwestern Minnesota town near the South Dakota border when she married.

The man she married worked in business. In public, he shined with charm. At home, he berated her with sarcasm, threats, and grabbed her with force. When her two children came along, she tried to shield them and fight back, which never ended well.

MABEL: That was-- [SIGHS] hard on me because I'd walk around with a black eye or wreck my glasses.

ELIZABETH STAWICKI: She says she would have gotten an annulment, but didn't know about it at the time. She went to see her local priest, but says her husband charmed him as well. Seeing no way out, she tried to manage the abuse for 61 years.

MABEL: He'd get so angry his eyes would change color. I swear they'd change color. He'd threaten me by choking me, you know, and then looking me in the eye with those spooky eyes. Oh my goodness.

ELIZABETH STAWICKI: Mabel is now 83. Her husband last choked her only about two years ago. It was then that Mabel called her daughter in Minnesota for help. Her daughter created a safety plan that enlisted about a dozen family members. Some would keep Mabel's husband occupied and out of the house for a day while others helped Mabel get on a plane to Minnesota.

Mabel's husband tried to get her back by sending flowers and apologizing. Around the same time, he became ill with brain tumors. He died last summer.


MABEL: That is so good. Thank you.

SPEAKER 2: You're welcome.

ELIZABETH STAWICKI: Today, Mabel is safe, living in her own home in Rochester, having morning coffee and muffins with her daughter at the kitchen table.

MABEL: I would have left a long, long time ago if I'd have had some help, but he was so into everything I did and watched me like a hawk, you know, that he would kill me before-- [CHUCKLES] if I went to anybody in our area for help. Oh, he had guns-- like this is the table-- he had the guns right along the wall. He sat right by the guns, yeah.

ELIZABETH STAWICKI: Mabel is unique because she chose to tell her story, although she asked that we not use her real name because of the stigma attached to her situation. Those who help domestic abuse victims say, the older the victim, the less likely they are to seek help. Most often, it's a friend, a neighbor, or an adult child that seeks help for them.

In March, the US Department of Justice released the results of a telephone survey of 8,500 respondents aged 60 and over. It found more than half of all physical abuse came from spouses or partners. Less than a third of them reported the abuse to a police. The overall rate of reported physical abuse was less than 2%, but prosecutors, police, and advocates say the numbers are much higher.

Even the study's author said the results were limited because self-reporting was notoriously under-reported in that age group. There are several reasons why. The movement against domestic and child abuse is only about 35 years old. Before that, many people grew up with the notion that what happens in the family is private.

Moreover, older women grew up at a time when women were far more dependent on their partners. They worry that, if they report their spouse's abuse, they'll have nowhere to go and will end up in a nursing home. Researchers say they're seeing three major kinds of abuse among older couples. Abuse that continues throughout a relationship, abuse that starts with the onset of an illness, and abuse from a new partner after a longtime spouse dies. In all types, control is the name of the game.

MABEL: Isn't it nice that they're so close? Isn't it nice that he always takes her? He has to go with her every place she goes? Anybody ever asking, did you want to go someplace alone?

ELIZABETH STAWICKI: Shar Thompson co-founded the Minnesota network of abuse in later life. She says, abuse in a new marriage can be difficult to detect, particularly if the first marriage had no abuse. She says, it's not on anyone's radar, and victims often won't tell their children because they're too ashamed.

MABEL: Because how do I tell my kids? They'll think, how dumb were you? It's not that the kids are going to think that she was dumb. They would come to her support right away. It's that she thinks that herself. And after all, at my age, why wasn't I smart enough to see what was going on? Now, I'll just have to put up with it.

ELIZABETH STAWICKI: Thompson says no one has to put up with it, and they should ask for help. Her organization in Saint Paul specializes in helping older victims access all kinds of help, including support groups for 60 and over. There's also an 800 number that anyone can call in Minnesota and be connected with help locally.

Police too have evolved, says Sergeant Anne Bibeau of Saint Paul Police's Elder Abuse Unit. A unit which began only about a year ago. Bibeau says, now, police will file charges against an abuser, even if the victim changes her or his mind later. She says, that's very different from decades ago when police would drop charges if the victim wanted or would just tell an abuser to cool off. That's changed, but she says some things haven't.

SHAR THOMPSON: We don't have shelter facilities out there that can take elderly people that may have physical problems and need medical care. There's shelters out there that just aren't able to take them. Or if you find a shelter, they don't have available beds.

ELIZABETH STAWICKI: Older people may not feel comfortable among victims in their 20s who have young children. They also may have physical problems that limit walking. There is one place in Minnesota that offers some shelter equipped for seniors called Cornerstone in Bloomington.

The agency's Cheryl Kolb-Untinen says, the center has five two-bedroom apartments and does have a ramp and elevator accessibility. She says, nothing should stop anyone from seeking help regardless of age.

CHERYL KOLB-UNTINEN: We had a lot of times people think, oh, if I was going to leave, I would have done that 20 years ago. You know? And I hear some self blame piled on during those times when they're saying something like that. And I really don't think that it is ever too late.

ELIZABETH STAWICKI: Meanwhile, even though Mabel can't see very well and is tethered to an oxygen tank, the end of abuse has been a sigh of relief.

MABEL: I'm getting stronger every day that I can get myself back to being me, because I just hid myself so long. I get to be like I was. In fact, when I'm here by myself and they have some of that music or Fred Astaire dancing and singing-- [CHUCKLES] I used to do that as a teenager. Seeing it on TV just reminds me of-- and I feel so good. [LAUGHS]

[FRED ASTAIRE, "PICK YOURSELF UP"] Nothing's impossible I have found

For when my chin is on the ground

I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again

ELIZABETH STAWICKI: In about 20 years, when all the baby boomers reached the senior ranks, the US Census Bureau says there will be about 72 million persons 65 and over. More than twice the number in 2000. As a result, the sheer numbers of older adults in abusive relationships is sure to rise as well. I'm Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio news.



FRED ASTAIRE: How am I doing, Bella?

ALL: Wow.


(SINGING) Oh, pick yourself up

Dust yourself off

Start all over again.


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