Norma was 84 years old when she was sexually assaulted by a male staff member while staying in respite care.
The incident came to light when her relatives met her soon after. “We were sitting around the kitchen table and she said to us with great distress, ‘he shouldn’t be allowed to do that, it’s not allowed.’ And we said, ‘what’s happened?’ And she described an early morning sexual assault by a male staff member. She told him to stop it, and that’s when he smiled and said to her, I can do anything I want,” said relative, Philomena Horsley. “We were shocked. Just gutted. Disbelieving – not of her story – but of how anyone could do that to an older woman who was really vulnerable.”
Norma’s family reported the incident to police and provided her with the support and help needed. Two years on her story has been the catalyst behind ground-breaking nationwide study into sexual assault against the elderly. Lead researcher of ‘Norma’s Project’ Catherine Barrett, hopes the project will expose a largely invisible crime. “The findings will raise awareness in the community, a lot of people don’t believe sexual assault against the elderly occurs. The evidence will show us what we can do to prevent it from happening,” she says.
Diane Brooks from the Older Women’s Network (OWN) in Western Sydney says victims from non-English-speaking backgrounds are even less likely to speak out. “They may not want people to know what’s happening in their lives, they may feel unsafe revealing the information and they may be disempowered,” says Brooks.
Presbyterian Aged Care CEO Paul Sadler says disempowerment of elderly women is the motivation behind the assault. “Often it’s about domination. Sexual predators against children, as well as older people, often seek out vulnerable victims. They’re looking for people who are isolated. not be able to stand up for themselves, not able to fight back and not likely to report what happened”.
Philomena Horsley says Norma has now been moved to an aged care centre where she is well-protected, respected and cared for. However she says incident had a profound impact on her emotional and physical health.
“It became very clear after the incident that she lost the feeling of being safe in her own home. It took a while for her to feel safe around other people again. She also became more frail.”
Norma’s family hopes her story will inspire other victims to come forward. “We want her experience to be a prompt for a wider social awareness for a wider range of support for older women,” said Philomena Horsley.
INTERVIEWS WITH CATHERINE BARRETT AND PAUL SADLER