Despite what we see on television, domestic abuse is not exclusive to those who are young, female, or healthy. According to a 2007 study published in The Gerontologist, 3.5% of women over 65 had experienced threats or physical violence in the past five years, and 2.2% in the past year. Though the numbers are lower than they might be for younger women, it’s dangerous to overlook them.

As Dr. Douglas Wornell explains in his forthcoming book, Sexuality and Dementia, seniors with dementia and their partners may be particularly at risk for abuse but their ability to get help is compromised. Partners who are victims of domestic violence, like their younger counterparts, may be embarrassed or unwilling to report it. The confusion inherent with the disease makes it more difficult to comprehend what has happened. On the other hand, when the confusion of dementia leads a partner to become violent, reporting abuse becomes much more complicated and calls for medical intervention.

In Sexuality and Dementia, Dr. Wornell explores the ways relationships change when one partner has dementia. Neurobiological changes that occur with dementia can exaggerate or alter personalities in dramatic ways. Confusion and disinhibition may cause partners with dementia to act out violently against their loved ones, whether or not they have a history of abuse. It’s also not uncommon for caregivers and spouses to become violent towards their partners with dementia in acts of frustration.

If you suspect that a loved one is being abused or has become an abuser, don’t wait to get help. It may not be enough to rely on your loved one to tell you when he or she needs assistance, especially if dementia is involved. Because of the nature of the disease, the warning signs may be difficult to interpret. Unexplained bruises, injuries, and broken bones could be a sign of abuse, or not. A social worker can help you determine the best ways to keep your loved one safe and get the care you need.

Here’s where you can find help:

  • The National Center on Elder Abuse provides this brief on late life domestic violence that provides important information for families, caregivers, and everyone in the aging network
  • The National Adult Protective Services Association maps the centers in each state where you can report elder abuse. Many reporting centers host 24-hour hotlines.
  • The National Association for Geriatric Care Managers can help you find a care manager or geriatric social worker in your area.