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Have you recently talked with an aunt, grandparent, or client about dating, sex, and love? There are many older adults in their 70’s, 80’s or 90’s who engage in intimate relationships. While many enjoy healthy relationships, some relationships become toxic and can result in elder abuse, exploitation, and intimate partner violence.
We all desire love in our lives and older adults often experience this need more intensively because of the isolation that accompanies the aging process and the lack of acceptance of sexuality in later life.
Janet Mar’s story is a common example of how toxic relationships are formed and ultimately escalate to a point no longer manageable and/or healthy. Ms. Mar is a 79 year old woman who attends her local NYC senior center and recently met and began dating Robert, a 60 year old man who also attends the same senior center. Ms. Mar has been attending the center less since dating Robert because he prefers to spend time alone and believes Ms. Mar “flirts” with other men. Ms. Mar swears that she’s not interested in anyone else but Robert, but he doesn’t believe her and threatened to break up with her if she doesn’t stop interacting with her friends. She confided in a close friend that Robert has been asking for money and saying hurtful and threatening things to her when she says she doesn’t feel right about giving him the money. Her friend told her that she should consider “taking a break” from Robert but she’s so grateful to have a companion and desperately wants to try and make the relationship “work.” One of Ms. Mar’s friends confided in a senior center staff member about Ms. Mar’s situation and the staff member said she’d speak privately with Ms. Mar to assess her situation and refer her to appropriate services.
To raise awareness of toxic relationships such as Ms. Mar’s, we’ve highlighted 5 signs pointing to dangerous love and included helpful resources for professionals, family members and friends. We’ve adapted tips from an article about toxic relationships written by a clinical psychologist and made them applicable to older adults.1
5 Signs Signs Pointing to Dangerous Love
- Extreme possessiveness and jealousy with attempts to control contact with others: One common ageist stereotype is that older adults do, and should, spend more time at home alone. While this may be a personal preference for many older adults, most prefer to engage with their community, friends, and family. When older adults start new relationships and subsequently disengage with their community, it may be a sign that the relationship is unhealthy and could benefit from loved ones asking questions and offering support.
- Excessive criticism and contempt (privately or publicly) with demeaning comments and mocking behavior, which sometimes escalates to physical injuries (bruises, fractures, cuts or untreated wounds): These types of comments could potentially seem to come from a place of caregiver burnout and may be dismissed if the partner has significant physical or mental health needs. However, it is important that clients and loved ones know that this type of behavior is not acceptable and can escalate to dangerous situations.
- Frequent displays of hostility and outbursts, which result in excuse making on the part of the older adult who is experiencing abuse: Commonly, elder abuse victims, like victims of domestic violence, will excuse the behavior of their abuser. It is important that older adults are encouraged to access resources and supports that will help to ensure their safety.
- Consistent use of guilt and emotional blackmail, “you owe me” for caregiving, financial support, or even allowing relationship to exist to begin with: Aging comes with many losses including those of loved ones and physical abilities. The threat of isolation, being unable to care for oneself, or having to be placed in a nursing home often prompts the older adult to choose to stay in the relationship rather than face these outcomes.
- Requiring older adults to keep relationships secret from friends, family members, and others: Hiding relationships can often seem like a romantic gesture and is famously seen throughout history in epic tales such as Romeo and Juliet. However, this can also be a sign that the relationship is dangerous and may lead to bad outcomes for those involved (it certainly did for Romeo and Juliet). This can be complicated by the death of previous spouses and older adults’ concerns about how their children will react to a new partner. Families can encourage openness by talking about relationships with their older relatives and showing that they support their desire to engage in romantic relationships.
Families, friends, and aging professionals can fight ageism and abuse by fostering dialogues with older adults about their dating lives. As a result, healthy relationships will be supported and toxic relationships identified.
If you have a loved one or client you feel is in a dangerous relationship please visit the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, the Department for the Aging, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline for resources and information.
“Elder Abuse Hurts” graphic created by Nancy Oatts; email@example.com.
By Cara Kenien, LMSW, MPA, NYCEAC Social Media Manager, Evelyn Laureano, Ph.D., LMSW, Neighborhood Self Help by Older Persons Project, Executive Director & Elizabeth Bloemen, MPH, NYCEAC Social Media Associate
- Cory, Thomas L. Toxic Relationships. HealthScope. Accessed February 9, 2015. http://www.healthscopemag.com/toxic-relationships/. [↩]