I want to preface these reflections by reiterating that anyone can be a survivor. Throughout my time at Sakhi for South Asian Women, I have worked with numerous older clients, yet I’ve found that these stories are often overshadowed in mainstream reporting of gender-based violence. In light of this dangerous silence and in honor of Elder Abuse Awareness Month, I am sharing my thoughts on Elder Abuse programming in the nonprofit sector.
Sakhi’s Client, MB, is a recent immigrant who came to New York City to join her son, a citizen of the United States, and his family. Shortly after her arrival here, she started facing abuse at the hands of her son and his wife (MB’s daughter-in-law). At her son’s house, she was forced into servitude; forced to perform duties like cleaning, cooking, and looking after her grandchildren. In addition, she was physically and emotionally abused. On one occasion, they pushed her onto the floor and beat her. On yet another occasion, her son and daughter-in-law beat her using their kitchen tools, forcing her to call 911. She was hospitalized for 3 days.
After MB’s hospitalization, the police and Sakhi got involved after receiving a call to our helpline. Due to cultural restraints, she struggled to share the abuse she endured, which included emotional abuse from her husband.
Sakhi offered MB a safe space to receive consistent emotional support. A Master of Social Work (MSW) Bengali-speaking intern, Najmin Akther, was assigned to work with her and provide her with crisis support. MB attended Sakhi’s legal clinic with an advocate present, and found legal representation. With Sakhi’s assistance, she also received an Order of Protection against her son and daughter-in-law. The MSW intern and the Economic Empowerment team helped her navigate the Human Resources Administration (HRA) system. The intern also accompanied her twice to the HRA office to apply for public benefits, and she has subsequently been able to receive SNAP benefits, cash assistance, and rental assistance, in addition to the financial assistance she received from Sakhi. Having access to these resources has helped MB to feel more stable and independent.
MB feels that Sakhi is her healing place. Here, she says, everyone is welcoming to her, and everyone respects her.
In many South Asian cultures, families tend to stay together interminably, which can often lead to the older adults in the household depending on their children and their in-laws for care. This can create a power dynamic between the older adult and the family members on whom they depend. This dynamic may become abusive, and make older family members susceptible to physical, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse. As South Asian cultures often look down on individuals who seek help from outsiders, as opposed to dealing with it at home, survivors of domestic abuse can experience guilt and shame that prevent them from filing a report.
In South Asian cultures, women are often boxed into a situation where they find it much harder to escape violence because of long-standing patriarchal beliefs and systems. In MB’s case, she was reliant upon her son and daughter-in-law for care, and they began abusing her to assert power and control over her. She remained in the abusive household despite the abuse she experienced. It is my understanding that she tolerated the abuse to avoid shame and guilt that would arise from reporting her own son and daughter-in-law. MB’s dependence on, first, her husband, and then her son demonstrates the cycle wherein South Asian women are pushed into a state of perpetual dependency on the male members of their families. This forced dependency can silence women, like MB, who need to survive financially. The stigma of being a survivor in South Asian cultures threatens to isolate individuals from their communities, and thus can also silence women about the domestic abuse they have experienced.
Furthermore, Elder Abuse remains a prevalent issue, as our society perpetuates ageism. For context, per elderabuse.org, 1 in 10 Americans will experience elder abuse in later life, and in 2 out of every 3 elder abuse cases, a family member of the survivor is the abuser. In a recent research letter regarding Elder Abuse during the pandemic, S. Duke Han PhD and Laura Mosqueda MD argue that, “Ageism is pervasive, harmful, and arguably the primary vice underlying elder abuse.” Furthermore, they highlight how ageism has arisen from the virus’ “predilection towards harming older adults,” suggesting that elder folks’ needs will be pushed aside by society, “potentially leading to tragic and unjust utilitarian conversations about ‘the needs of the many versus the needs of the few.’”
Throughout the pandemic, we have observed that older adults are increasingly experiencing neglect because their children are now home and have to take care of them full time. One client recently mentioned that her daughter is neglecting her needs. Despite the fact that she gets paid to take care of her mother through a home care program, she is not meeting those needs. Unfortunately, this is a common scenario, as some children find their parents to be a burden later in life.
The pandemic has increased physical and mental vulnerability amongst older adults. Many of the immigrants with whom Sakhi works came here very late in their life. As a result, they face a heightened sense of loneliness, and are more likely to be dependent on their families.
Often, when we think about success in supporting clients, it can be hard to visualize something other than a massive, life changing impact. However, from MB’s story, we see how even smaller acts of support make our client’s lives easier. Sakhi’s Advocate provided MB with accompaniment, connected her to vital resources through HRA due to her challenging financial situation, and enabled her to access quality foods through Sakhi’s Food Justice Program. In addition, our intern and advocate provided transportation support. Our advocate also made sure to offer Uber and Lyft services to MB whenever she was not able to provide transportation accompaniments. This car service is part of Sakhi’s Elder Abuse Program policy, which ensures continued support to our older clients in navigating the city. MB has expressed satisfaction and gratitude for the advocate’s and intern’s efforts during a difficult time in her life.
When I called MB several weeks ago, she reported feeling physically and emotionally unwell, as she had been at home for the last three months, was facing verbal and emotional abuses, and had found it hard to maintain social distance, and she is feeling depressed.
Over the past month, however, we offered MB $1,200 for rental and cash assistance, in addition to the food basket that we are providing on a bi-weekly basis. MB’s advocates also continue to assist her with accessing HRA benefits and COVID-19-specific grants. Last week, MB informed me that she is separated from her husband and children and she is subletting with a family. She reported feeling strong and very determined.
I have been working with Sakhi for South Asian Women’s elder abuse project for the last four years. I remain a passionate advocate for older survivors. This is a very tough time for our community of older adults, as they are the most vulnerable of vulnerable groups and are frequently isolated. They need our support, and it is our duty to check in on how our elders are doing in a pandemic and to ensure they have the necessary items they require.
As an organization, we:
Have partnered with JASA and other community organizations to work in tandem to address and end elder abuse. We also conduct outreach in community landmarks that best position us to reach older folks.
We have also conducted workshops, such as “Elder Abuse 101” and “Mental Health & Elder Abuse Community workshop” with India Home and Project New Yorker. We have done workshops at Deshi senior centers and a mosque, which hosts a breakfast and an ESL class attended predominantly by women, many over the age of 60. The workshop covers topics including different forms of domestic violence and mental health issues, as well as how abuse manifests itself within the community, and resources that are available for the survivors.
Sakhi’s advocates continue to actively participate in trainings on Elder Abuse, in order to better understand the context as well as support pathways for older survivors. This support often includes emotional support through Sakhi community Chai & Chat groups, legal assistance with Orders of Protection and divorce, help with accessing public benefits, and, when possible, skills trainings for computer fluency and English language.
Below, we outline the challenges and opportunities regarding addressing Elder Abuse.
Challenges for Older Survivors of Abuse in New York City, and Recommendations for Nonprofit Organizations:
Older clients may have restricted mobility making them unable to travel and/or commute short-or-long distances without assistance.
We require accompaniments to all meetings and appointments for older clients in order to advocate for them, provide emotional support, and offer interpretation services as needed. This support may look like assistance with filling out forms, or communicating with service providers, government offices, etc. We strive to ensure that clients are engaged in decision making processes as they seek services, while helping break down the language, cultural, and financial barriers that impede one’s ability to make such decisions.
We also recommend taking Uber or Lyft services to commute as trains can be a barrier for older clients. For instance, getting into the train stations via staircases can prove challenging to clients, and navigating subway lines can also be difficult for clients who may not speak, read, or write English.
2. Emotional vulnerability & Suppression of Emotions and Thoughts
Older clients are more likely to experience internalizing disorders such as depression due to factors like isolation. Especially during this time, folks are particularly susceptible to loneliness.
The collectivistic cultural practices and influences may also result in individuals who stay silent or find it difficult to openly express how they are feeling/going through at home. Putting the needs of a group above an individual’s needs is standard practice in South Asian cultures. Older clients may also be restricted by language if they do not speak, read, or write English.
We encourage you to connect with your neighbors, especially older neighbors, to see how they are doing during this difficult time.
We would also like to stress the importance of engaging older clients with the organization through support groups.
3. Limited Awareness & Resources–Specifically Regarding Older South Asian Survivors
There are a limited number of Deshi senior centers and shelters for survivors facing elder abuse from the South Asian diaspora. Additionally, home care agencies do not generally offer culturally-specific services.
It is imperative that we raise awareness of this need for new deshi senior centers in New York City.
In general, we can better assess the needs of older folks and respond to their specific needs, such as obtaining necessary grocery items, virtual emotional support, and financial assistance.
Home care agencies also ought to promote education on how to maintain social distancing measures in a multi-family household and take more precautions.
4. The Prevalence of Ageism
As a society, we perpetuate the idea that, once you reach a certain age, you are not capable of doing anything. It is important to provide education on how to break down these stereotype of older adults, in order to promote consistently healthy and happy living standards–no matter one’s age.
In light of this pervasive discrimination, we call for community members to be of greater support to their loved ones. A recent blog from the government of British Columbia suggested six ways to connect with older adults and counter ageism, including refraining from ageist jokes and language, reaching out to older folx in your communities, and speaking out to put a stop to ageism.