Thomas Berrigan never dreamed he'd reach retirement age and end up being a prisoner in his own home. Most of his possessions have been either stolen or vandalized, his trailer home has been burglarized repeatedly, and he is afraid to leave in the morning and to return home at night. He is desperate to move away but can't afford it.
Is he a victim of gangs? Local thugs? Vicious, drug-crazed criminals?
No--he is the prisoner of a vindictive, mentally unstable ex-wife, her adult children, and a legal system that prejudges him guilty and her innocent.
"If I call the police, she'll say I attacked her," he says. "If I try to defend my home and come near her, she'll scream, call the police and I'll go to jail as a wife-beater. Her children will corroborate anything she says. I have nowhere else to go. I'm stuck."
According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, elder abuse has risen sharply over the past decade and a half, and less than one in 10 cases of elder abuse are actually reported to authorities. Neglect is the most common form of abuse, comprising roughly half of all cases, followed by physical abuse (15 to 20%), emotional abuse (15%), and property destruction, theft, or financial exploitation (10%). The most likely abusers are adult children and spouses. Adjusting for the greater number of elderly women, men and women both abuse and are abused in equal proportion.
There are many different elder abuse scenarios but, according to researchers Karl Pillemer and David Finkelhor, one of the more common ones is an elderly man being abused by his healthier (and perhaps younger) wife, or by a second wife, who often abuses with the assistance or complicity of her adult children.
Berrigan's ex-wife, whom he married a decade ago and recently divorced, knows that he is trapped and is thus able to operate with impunity. She broke-in to his trailer home while he was away and destroyed the papers he needs to get his veterans' benefits. She stole most of his clothes and other possessions. She stole his phone bills and the keys to his daughter's house, and leaves threatening messages which hint darkly about his grandchildren.
She tells everybody in their small desert community that he's harmed her and tries to incite them against him. Berrigan, a deeply religious man, is afraid to go to his own church--afraid that she may be there, jump in front of him as he walks in or out, fall down, and scream "help"! With the help of his daughter, Berrigan was able to get a restraining order against his ex-wife, but it is of limited value because he is still very hesitant to call the police.
Activists say that Berrigan's problem is anything but rare. According to attorney Marc Angelucci, California chairman of Stop Abuse for Everyone (SAFE), often men like Berrigan are "among the most defenseless people in our country. Even though countless studies show that there are plenty of women who commit spousal harassment and abuse, our courts and criminal justice system are reluctant to recognize it. Police are under tremendous pressure to protect women and arrest male ‘batterers', whatever their age. The law in practice often doesn't protect these men and stands ready to jail them on the word of the women who victimize them."
When an elderly man's health has deteriorated to the point where the police could be convinced that he is actually the victim, men still often decide not to report their abuse. According to author and men's advocate Warren Farrell:
"Many elderly men who are abused by their wives report their wives' anger at their failure to be useful--as a breadwinner or as a home-repairer. The man has gone from protector to needing protection, and that is a set up for her anger. The man's shame and dependency often prevent him from reporting his wife's abuse."
Berrigan is one of the lucky ones, because his abuse is not physical, at least not yet. Ken Hedrick, a retired firefighter, is less fortunate. He has been repeatedly assaulted by his wife of five years, who attacks him by surprise, often using kitchenware and household objects as weapons. Even though he worked his whole life until he reached retirement age, part of what fuels her rage is his diminished retirement income and the fact that she, 10 years his junior, has to work.
When they're both home he spends most of his time in a separate living quarters in the garage and tries to avoid angering her. Sounding exactly like a battered wife, he speaks in a soft voice while I interview him on the phone, listening for signs that his wife may be coming home. Today, she is enraged at him over her car accident, an accident which occurred while he was not even there. He says he's afraid to leave her because it may enrage her further, and there aren't any shelters that accept men near him. He has documented evidence of her abuse over the past five years but doubts that authorities would believe him. And call the police? He says:
"Absolutely not. I've no doubt that she could go in front of any cop, judge, or jury and accuse me of being the abuser and cry and lie and have them ready to hang me."