When I reached for the ringing phone on my nightstand at 1:15 a.m. on the morning of June 12 and saw my younger sister’s Texas phone number on caller ID, I frantically thought that this was the call I had been dreading.
My mother, who lives in Houston, was 18 days shy of turning 89. She is in fairly good health for someone her age, but as a nurse practitioner I expect that any number of things could happen — a fall, a heart attack, a stroke.
Still, nothing could have prepared me for what came next.
Before I had a chance to say hello, in a trembling voice, my sister said, “We’ll get through this together, we’ll support each other. A police officer is here and he told me that mom has been assaulted.” Then she sobbed into the phone.
From my home in Chicago, I asked to talk to the officer, who shakily explained that someone had entered my mother’s second floor apartment in her independent living community. There was evidence that she was sexually assaulted — raped — in her bed several hours earlier.
At 1:30 a.m., with my partner by my side, I called the hospital where my mother had been taken by ambulance for evaluation and a sexual assault examination. When I got through to the emergency room, my mother apologized.
“I didn’t want to upset you”, she said. “This certainly was not on my bucket list.” She said that she was “fine,” and not to worry.
My mother was not fine, but she was remarkable. She did not think that she would survive the attack — when she was thrown about her bed and beaten, while the perpetrator attempted to suffocate her several times, and then raped her anally.
The perpetrator only talked to her once during the rape. “Do you like this?” he whispered as he put his cheek on hers.
My mother later told me, “All I could think of was what to do — I was panicked. I thought that if I was going to die, I would get everything I could on him. I imagined I saw Detective Benson from the TV show, ‘Law and Order SVU’ out of the corner of my eye and heard her say, ‘Get DNA! Look for distinguishing marks!’ So I clawed at him to try to get evidence.’”
After the rape, she said she lay motionless on her bed, afraid that he was still in her apartment. After a time, she pressed the personal alert button on her nightstand. She got no response from the front desk.
She went to the bathroom and pulled the emergency cord. Twice. Still no response. Desperate for help, she called the front desk once again. This time, the receptionist answered. My mother said that she had been raped and told her to call 911 immediately.
Because of my mother’s actions, DNA evidence from the skin underneath her nails identified a 21-year-old homeless man as the suspect who was charged with the assault. He had 24 priors, all misdemeanors, but was a person of interest in several other assaults on senior citizens in the area. When police apprehended him two weeks after the rape, he was attempting to enter another senior community.
We have an obligation to protect those who are vulnerable. As rampant sexual harassment and assault of women are recently receiving media attention since the Harvey Weinstein debacle and the outrageous acts of so many others, we need to ensure that women — regardless of age — are protected and supported following sexual assault.
Sexual assaults in nursing homes are not uncommon. Earlier this year, CNN reported in an investigation "that more than 1,000 nursing homes in this country had been cited for mishandling suspected cases of sexual abuse and rape.”
Recent cases in Rhode Island, California, North Carolina, Ontario, Canada and New York point to this reality.
According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, women are six times more likely to be victims of elder sexual abuse, though only 30 percent of elderly victims of sexual abuse over the age of 65 years actually report the abuse to the authorities, according to the Nursing Home Abuse Center. An estimated 83 percent of victims of elder sexual abuse live in an institutional care center, such as a nursing home or senior living communities. As my mother does.
Shortly after the attack on my mother, I took the first flight I could from Chicago to Houston in a daze — alternately weeping and feeling numb.
I was apprehensive as I opened the door to my mother’s room to see her sitting in a robe in her favorite chair, shrunken, bruised and scratched, exhausted. I wanted to scoop her up in my arms and take her to somewhere else, anywhere else.
Pointing to her head, she stared at me and said, “No matter where I go, it’s in here. I’m too exhausted and upset and in too much pain to move anywhere right now. I don’t have the energy to explain this to people I don’t know. I have friends here.”
Three years earlier when my mother called me and my sister to say she’d had enough of bursting pipes, keeping up the lawn and other common headaches of a homeowner, I was relieved.
She had spent years as my father’s primary caregiver as he descended deeper into Lewy body disease, eventually living in the house they owned together, alone. I saw a move to an independent living community as a chance for her to maintain her fierce independence in a safe, welcoming community with activities that would engage her and allow her to enjoy her last years in comfort.
The independent living community that she chose was one of the several potential communities that matched my mother’s income and interests. It was ideal — in a neighborhood minutes from my sister’s apartment. We would be able to call the front desk if we were concerned about her, and her apartment came equipped with emergency pull cords and personal safety alerts in the event of an emergency.
Now by her side, when we began to talk about the rape, my mother stared intently at me and said, “I am furious. This never should have happened. Not to me. Not to anyone.”
Later that evening, several managers of the facility appeared at my mother’s door with soup, a few frozen dinners, chocolate, cheese, and two bottles of wine.
My mother had signed an arbitration clause with her lease. Arbitration clauses have been problematic for seniors, and in particular for seniors in long-term care facilities. Many point to the goal of arbitration clauses to undermine the rights of consumers, employees and small businesses.
In June of this year, the White House sought to roll back legal rights for consumers put in place during President Barack Obama’s administration. The rights included any nursing homes which receive federal funding from requiring mandatory arbitration rather than recourse through the legal system.
Recently, the Treasury Department issued a statement slamming class action cases that would enhance the rights of those individuals blocked in a potential lawsuit by an arbitration clause.
As a daughter of a woman sexually assaulted at an independent living facility, I ask, “Do you have a mother?”
Barbara Shaw, DNP, APN, FNP-BC is a Family Nurse Practitioner and Assistant Professor at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois. She is a 2017 fellow of the OpEd Project.