When Margarita Solis was sexually assaulted at the age of 94, she initially felt ashamed and frightened. The people she told didn’t believe her, and the perpetrator probably thought he’d got away with it.
But a fighting spirit does not fade with age, and Margarita did not give up.
She found a trusted person who believed her story, and she took her complaint to the police.
The police immediately believed her, and helped her, and the assault ended up setting off a chain of events that has brought Margarita new friends, a new home, and a newfound sense of her own potential.
Margarita is now speaking out, urging other victims of sexual assault to talk about what has happened to them, and encouraging those around them to listen.
But most importantly, Margarita wants older people to know that if they are sexually assaulted, they should go straight to the police, where their complaint will be believed and taken seriously, and they will receive the help they need.
“He thought he could lay his hands on me because I am old…”
In 2016, Margarita was sexually assaulted by the relief manager at the unit she was renting.
The man who sexually assaulted her, also assaulted two other women in the same block.
Margarita told HelloCare that after the incident she at first felt very angry.
“I was insulted. I have always been dignified, as was my mother who taught me.
“This apology-for-a-man thought he could lay his hands on me and fondle my breasts because I was old,” she said.
Not being believed
When Margarita first tried to talk to the people around her about what had happened, they didn’t believe her.
The perpetrator’s wife denied it.
“Then she asked what they could do to make me feel better. She then asked what I intended to do,” Margarita said.
“I said, ‘It starts with the police and ends in court.’”
Margarita then told the permanent manager of the apartment, but felt she didn’t believe her either.
“The female manager said, ‘He wouldn’t do that, he has been a family friend for years. You must have a urinary tract infection; it has addled your brain.’”
“I was furious, so I rang for an appointment with my doctor,” Margarita said.
Having recently had a UTI test, Margarita asked her doctor for a copy of the report. The doctor asked Margarita why she needed the information, and she eventually told him.
“When I told him, he said he would have to report it.
“He then gave me a cognitive awareness test, and I scored 28 out of 30. He then printed out the UTI result slip and wrote the cognitive awareness test results on it,” Margarita said.
“I was getting wilder about what was done to me.”
Finding people who believed her story
Margarita went to her Seniors Club shortly afterwards, and took the UTI report. She told the manager she wanted to speak with her when she had a spare moment.
But it was only when Margarita was boarding the bus that afternoon to leave that the manager came out to speak to her.
“That afternoon as I was boarding the bus to go home in the afternoon, she came out and apologised for not having time to catch up and asked what the topic of my issue was.
Margarita told her she’d been sexually assaulted.
The manager said she would ring Margarita at home that afternoon, which she did, and she arranged for her and her boss to come to see her the next morning.
It was the first time Margarita felt her story was being believed.
The following day, the Seniors Club manager and her boss came to Margarita’s, bringing pamphlets on elder abuse and sexual abuse, with information and phone numbers.
When they returned to their office, they rang the police, and the police then came to see Margarita.
“From the time it was in the hands of the police, I felt it was going to be alright…”
As soon as the police became involved, Margarita was reassured.
“From the time it was in the hands of the police Sergeant and the police woman at Capalaba, I felt it was going to be alright,” Margarita said.
“I could feel that the Sergeant and the police woman believed me. It felt to me like they were on my side,” she said.
Fear, guilt and sleeplessness after the assault
By this time, Margarita was beginning to feel the assault was her fault.
A friend at the unit had said to her, “I advise you not to talk to the police because people will talk.”
Even though Margarita knew the assault wasn’t her fault – she knew it was the perpetrator’s fault, “I felt dirty, as I had been mauled.”
She couldn’t sleep, and felt frightened in her own home.
“I couldn’t sleep at night as I thought he’d had access to the keys. He might come back,” she said.
Her requests to have more security measures put in were rejected by the property managers.
“I was scared, I couldn’t sleep more than three or four hours a night, and I slept with the light on all night. Any noise made me more scared that it may have been him outside. As time went on, when I went shopping and saw a man who looked like him, I got very scared and had to return home.”
The healing power of talking about what happened to her
A councellor from the Gold Coast Centre against Sexual Violence encouraged Margarita to talk about what had happened to her. She said that “instead of bottling it all in, I could talk about it.”
Margarita saw her five or six times and said it was “very helpful”.
“The adage that a problem shared is a problem halved is quite true,” Margarita said, so long as the response is appropriate and the person is believed.
“It cemented in my mind that, in future, I would try to stop any other older women from being sexually assaulted like I was.”
Margarita felt that she was able to do things, but some other older women weren’t so able.
“By talking about it, with my fighting spirit, I thought I would do anything, from helping to change laws, to letting other older women know that help was available if it did happen to them.”
What should you do if you are sexually abused?
Margarita is encouraging older women to go straight to the police if they are sexually abused.
“I can’t emphasise that enough,” she said.
“If police and others in the system don’t hear about it, they don’t think it is happening,” she said.
“The survivor has to know that it wasn’t their fault, and that help is available.”
Margarita also recommends seeking help from a counsellor.
“The Elder Abuse Help Line can provide phone numbers for people and organisations that can help them,” she said.
Show interest in older people, listen to them, believe them
Margarita is also encouraging family members to encourage a loved one to talk if they feel that something like this might have happened to them.
“If they think a relative or friend of theirs has had anything like this happen to them, encourage them to talk, believe them and get help for them.
“Show an interest. If an older woman knows that you care – she will feel safer to tell you how she is actually feeling and what has happened to her.”
Margarita said she knows of older women who have told someone they have been sexually assaulted and have not been believed. She said not being believed has made them reluctant to tell anyone else.
“But if you are encouraging, they might trust you to talk about what is, or has been, happening to them.”
“Some older women feel ashamed of sexual abuse and blame themselves – or are worried that others will blame them. Tell older women it’s not their fault. That is essential.”
“Don’t underestimate the intelligence or the resilience of older women.”
Margarita would like to see older women better respected in society.
“Be respectful of older women – don’t poke fun at them because they will think you won’t be interested in listening to them.
“If you do things like telling stupid jokes about ageing, it may lead her to believe because she’s old, she must be stupid, or because of how she looks, or dresses, or her frailties, she is somehow not worthy or you just won’t believe her.
“Don’t share cartoons, or post cards that are ageist, making older people look silly or ugly, or saying ageist things,” Margarita recommends.
“We learnt a lot from older folk in my day; you also see it in other cultures too – elders are respected. They can pass on a lot of wisdom if we stop, look, and listen.”
“Just because we are older women we are NOT stupid. Don’t underestimate the intelligence or the resilience of older women. Talk to them and get to know them. They should not be relegated, but treated with respect for their intelligence, life experiences, and their education more generally.”
“My life is perfect”
The experience, though dreadful, has brought Margarita a new circle of friends, a new home at Nazareth House, and she has regained her confidence, both in herself, and in the world around her.
The perpetrator was eventually charged and pleaded guilty not only to Margarita’s charge, but also to the sexual assault of the other woman. (The other women did not lay charges as she was living with dementia.) He was sentenced to six month’s imprisonment, immediately suspended.
Four of her friends from her previous life have also moved to Nazareth House. “Those four are very happy at Nazareth House too with the level of care and safety here,” Margarita said.
“In every way, things are terrific. I am safe, I am treated with respect.”
“I think my life is perfect. I’ve made many new friends – among the residents and staff.
“I have my confidence back.
“My support network has increased considerably, but some of them have now become firm friends. People have to be open to accept help and know that there are many kind and considerate people in our world.”
Who should you contact if you have been sexuallly abused?
Firstly, call the police.
Call 000 in emergencies.
Elder abuse helpline – 1800 628 221
OPAL Institute (Older People And sexuALity Institute), which promotes the sexual rights of older people – www.opalinstitute.org