Understanding the Long-Term Impact: Healing Trauma in Senior Survivors of Sexual Assault

by | Jul 12, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Sexual assault is a traumatic experience that can have lasting effects on survivors. The healing process for survivors of sexual assault can be a long and difficult journey, but it is possible with the right support and resources. Although the impact of sexual assault can vary from person to person, research suggests that survivors of sexual violence are at risk for developing a range of mental health symptoms, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and depression.

In addition to affecting survivors’ mental and emotional well-being, sexual assault can also have physical symptoms. For example, survivors may experience chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, or other physical health problems as a result of the trauma they have experienced. In some cases, sexual assault survivors may also turn to substance abuse to cope with the trauma they have experienced.

For seniors who are seeking support through therapy and counseling, there are also resources available for sexual assault survivors, including national and crisis hotlines, law enforcement, and support groups. With the right support and resources, survivors of sexual assault can begin to rebuild their lives and find a sense of healing and peace after experiencing such a traumatic experience.

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Prevalence of Sexual Assault in Older Adults

Sexual assault can affect anyone, regardless of their age. And while it may be commonly believed that it only happens to younger individuals, studies have shown that sexual assault happens to older adults more often than most people realize. 

According to a study by the National Institute of Justice, approximately 11% of older adults experience some form of abuse or exploitation, including sexual assault. This is a staggering statistic that underscores the urgent need for increased awareness and support for survivors.

Furthermore, studies have found that sexual assault is vastly underreported, with many survivors suffering in silence due to feelings of shame, guilt, or fear of retribution. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police, and older adults are less likely to report sexual abuse than younger victims.

Risk Factors for Elderly Survivors of Sexual Assault

When it comes to elderly survivors, there are some unique risk factors that can impact their recovery process. Firstly, social isolation is a significant risk factor. In many cases, elderly individuals live alone or have limited social connections, making them more vulnerable to sexual assault and less likely to report the assault or speak about it with anyone.

Another risk factor for elderly survivors is physical health issues. As people get older and their health deteriorates, they become more vulnerable to sexual assault. In addition, some health conditions can make it challenging for survivors to access support services and attend counseling sessions.

Additionally, elderly survivors may have experienced multiple forms of trauma in their lives, including child abuse and domestic violence. These additional traumas can compound the effects of sexual assault and make the recovery process more challenging.

Lastly, cultural norms can impact the recovery process for elderly survivors of sexual assault. Some cultures may view sexual assault as taboo or shameful, which can make it difficult for survivors to come forward and seek the support they need.

Physical Symptoms Related to Trauma

Physical symptoms related to trauma can be just as debilitating as the mental symptoms. Trauma can have a variety of physical effects on the body, with many survivors experiencing chronic pain, headaches, fatigue, and gastrointestinal issues. It’s not uncommon for survivors to have physical symptoms that seem to have no medical explanation, sometimes referred to as psychosomatic symptoms.

Trauma can also have a profound impact on the immune system, leaving survivors more vulnerable to illness and infection. This is because the constant stress associated with trauma can cause a state of chronic inflammation in the body.

In some cases, survivors of sexual assault may experience physical injuries as a result of the trauma, including bruises, cuts, and broken bones, as well as internal injuries that may not be immediately apparent. Survivors should seek medical attention following an assault, both to address any physical injuries and to reduce their risk of long-term health problems.

Substance Abuse as a Coping Mechanism for Trauma

Substance abuse is a common coping mechanism for trauma survivors. Unfortunately, it often leads to addiction and can cause a host of physical health problems like liver damage or respiratory problems, as well as mental health issues like depression and anxiety. It can also negatively impact relationships and careers.

Those who are struggling with substance abuse as a coping mechanism should seek professional help. Therapy, support groups, and other treatment options can help individuals develop alternative coping mechanisms for trauma, such as mindfulness, exercise, or creative expression.

Senior Woman Comforting Man With Depression At Home

The Healing Process for Elderly Survivors

Healing from the trauma of sexual assault is a complex and challenging process, regardless of the age of the survivor. Although the healing process is different for everyone, there are some general steps that can help elderly survivors of sexual assault:

Support Services:

One of the most crucial steps toward healing is to seek out support services, whether that be counseling, therapy, a support group, or a combination of these. Support services can provide a safe and supportive environment for survivors to process and cope with their feelings and experiences. However, accessing support services can be challenging for elderly survivors, especially if they face physical or mobility challenges. In these cases, it may be necessary to seek out in-home support services or teletherapy.

Several therapeutic treatments can be beneficial for seniors who have experienced sexual assault trauma, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors related to the trauma. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is another type of therapy that has been shown to be effective for trauma survivors by helping to reprocess traumatic memories in a safe and structured way.

Social Support System

Another key component of the healing process is reconnecting with social support systems. Social isolation can be a major risk factor for elderly survivors, and connecting with others can play a significant role in recovery. Social support can come in the form of family members, friends, or community groups. However, it’s necessary to find supportive individuals who will not invalidate the survivor’s experience.

Furthermore, support groups and crisis hotlines, such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline, can provide vital resources and immediate support to survivors. Speaking with someone who understands and can offer a listening ear can make survivors feel less alone.

Physical Health

It’s crucial for elderly survivors to take care of their physical health during the healing process. This may include seeking medical attention for issues related to the assault, practicing self-care, and attending to any pre-existing health conditions. Taking care of physical health can also improve mental health symptoms and reduce the risk of developing long-term health issues.

Medical treatment may be necessary for seniors who have experienced physical injuries or illnesses related to the trauma. This can include treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or injuries related to forced penetration.

Self-Care

Self-care can include activities like gentle exercise, meditation, and spending time in nature. Engaging in hobbies or creative pursuits can also be helpful, as they can provide a sense of purpose and a way to express difficult emotions.

One resilience-building technique is self-compassion. Many survivors of sexual assault experience feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame. Learning to be kind and gentle with yourself can help you manage these difficult emotions. This can include positive self-talk, as well as engaging in activities that make you feel good about yourself.

Developing your spirituality or connection with a higher power can also provide a sense of control. Practices such as meditation, prayer, or yoga can reduce stress and anxiety, increase feelings of inner peace and calm, and cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning.

Destigmatizing Sexual Assault in Older Adults

There is an unfortunate cultural norm that sees older adults as desexualized beings. This stereotype has created a widely held belief that they do not experience sexual assault. As a result, senior survivors may not receive the support they deserve. We need to destigmatize sexual assault in older adults and recognize it as a real and impactful problem. 

Promoting awareness of sexual assault can help remove the shame associated with it, foster empathy and understanding, and dispel myths and misconceptions around the issue. Hopefully this will encourage more senior survivors to come forward and seek the support and resources they need to heal.

This can be achieved through community outreach programs, counseling services, and support groups tailored to sexual assault survivors. In addition, survivors need resources and information to help them navigate the healing process. This includes access to mental health services, legal aid, and crisis hotlines.

Finally, we must hold perpetrators accountable for their actions to promote a culture of zero-tolerance for sexual assault and create a safer environment for survivors.

Sexual assault can happen to anyone, and it can have lasting mental and physical effects on survivors. Older adults are uniquely vulnerable to sexual assault and many do not receive the resources they need to heal. Creating a supportive and inclusive environment for survivors is crucial to promote healing and provide access to much-needed resources. This requires a community-driven approach that includes education, resources, and support tailored to the needs of survivors.

DOVE is here to help

These conversations do not begin to cover all of the concerns regarding sexual assault. Our advocates are trauma-informed and can help you navigate the uncertainty of what you’ve experienced. We want to help empower you with the tools to find safety, enhance coping skills and regain control over your life. 

If you would like to speak to one of our advocates or have additional questions about our services, you can call our 24-Hour Helpline at 435-629-0458 or email [email protected].

Written by: Michelle Strickland of Aging.com