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Helping Elderly Survivors or Survivors with Special Needs

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Helping Elderly Survivors or Survivors with Special Needs

Helping elderly survivors or adult survivors with special needs can be challenging. Here are some tips to keep in mind.


Establish trust and safety: Establishing trust and safety with the person is critical.  Be mindful of their physical comfort and think of ways to make the environment feel more safe and soothing. Items such as pillows, stuffed animals, pets, pleasant smells, and music can be comforting.  Sometimes, just conveying your care using a calm and comforting tone of voice can help make someone feel more safe. 


Regular visits: Visit your family or friend regularly. Short visits are the most effective and helpful. Visiting them routinely and being consistent in your approach may help build trust and safety with them. 


Comfortable language: Elder abuse victims may use terms for intimate body parts that are not familiar to you. Many older individuals, especially women, may have been discouraged from using formal terms for their body parts. Often, people who grow up disabilities are never educated about sexuality or reproduction and may not have language to talk about the abuse. They may use terms like “down there” or a nickname to refer to their private areas. Use the language and terms that are comfortable for the victim.


Communication impairment: For some survivors, certain impairments or disabilities may make communication a greater challenge. They may already have a specific way to communicate with others.  Be sure to find out what works best for the person.  Listening to music or activities like drawing or coloring may allow them to express themselves to you.


Believe: Tell the survivor you know someone has hurt them by sexually assaulting or abusing them.  Acknowledging this can go a long way toward helping them feel you are a safe person to communicate with about this painful experience.  Generally, avoiding the issue isn’t helpful.  If the perpetrator is no longer a threat to the survivor, let them know they are now safe from that person.  If the perpetrator is still a threat, do what you can to protect the victim.


Remember, the victim is an adult: If the victim is adult, it is important for you to think about this. To the extent possible, respect the victim’s right to make choices about their life and circumstances.  This may help them regain some sense of personal power they may have lost due to the perpetrator’s actions. Even small choices can be empowering. In some circumstances, the victim’s physical or mental health may limit their ability to make some important decisions.  


Listen: Allow the survivor to tell you what they want about the assault or abuse in their own way.  Respond calmly and with empathy. Unless you are an investigator or healthcare professional, there is no need to push for more information. 


Empathy: Empathy is an effective tool to help someone heal.  Below are some examples of empathic statements you can use. Repeating these several times during your visit is helpful.

“I am sad this happened to you.”

“It is NOT your fault.”

“I am here to support you in whatever way I can.”



Other Options for Help

Local Sexual Assault Services Programs: Many Michigan communities have local sexual assault services programs that provide free and confidential crisis support, legal advocacy, medical advocacy, counseling, groups and/or therapy. Some of these programs also operate sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) programs or refer to nearby SANE programs. You can search for services in your local community online with an interactive map or you can call the Michigan Sexual Assault Hotline about these options in your community. 


Additional resources for seniors: Michigan also offers additional help and services to vulnerable adults and seniors through MDHHS and the Aging and Adult Services Agency.


MI Disability Resources: More information about services available in Michigan for people with disabilities is available at MI Disability Resources.


Reporting abuse: You can report abuse of an elderly person or vulnerable adult to the police. You can also report it to the Michigan Adult Protective Services by calling 855-444-3911. If you are a friend or family member, remember the survivor is an adult and should be part of any decision to report to the extent that she or he is able.


Reporting a health facility: You can file a complaint about a nursing home or certified health facility with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs on line or by calling the toll-free Complaint Hotline at 800-882-6006.