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Elder abuse: An escalating problem

By the year 2050, older people will outnumber children for the first time in history – making elder abuse an increasingly pertinent issue
By the year 2050, older people will outnumber children for the first time in history – making elder abuse an increasingly pertinent issue

Here at SOS Children, we spend a lot of time talking about the many issues affecting young people around the world. In the wake of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, guest blogger Isabelle wanted to draw attention to the problem of elder abuse, which is affecting more and more people as this portion of society grows.

The 15th June marked World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, but just like the problem itself, the day went by with very little notice.

Countries around the world are experiencing rapidly ageing populations, partly due to increasing life spans and decreasing birth rates. It’s expected that by the year 2050 – for the first time in history – older people will make up a larger proportion of global residents than children.

Yet oddly enough elder abuse, which is a major societal and public health issue, gets swept under the carpet… and stays there.

Why are elders neglected and abused?

Human rights advocates and organisations rightly focus on groups such as children and animals when it comes to human rights abuse. However, old people are sometimes misrepresented as useless, incompetent, and/or nearing the end of their time; consequently, there’s an indifference for their current and future well-being.

The 2014 WHO Global Status Report on Violence Prevention reports that out of 133 countries surveyed, two-thirds do not have adult protective services to support older people. Generally, there’s a lack of data on elder abuse, in addition to hazy definitions of who is considered old – compared to, for example, clear legislation on the age range of children. Furthermore, if one takes a look at the media coverage of elder abuse, words like “shameful”, “secret”, and “taboo” are often used when describing this issue. The underlying current that drives this problem is ageism, appalling yet largely ignored.

How are adults abused?

These men are from Kukes in Albania (Photo: Lipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Two thirds of countries in a recent survey did not have services to
support older people, making elder abuse a global problem

Elderly people can be abused in various ways: physically (hitting, confinement, withholding medicine); psychologically (humiliation, threats, shunning); and financially (exploitation, deception, healthcare fraud). Abandonment is also abuse. What’s worse is that physical and emotional distress in elders can lead to permanent damage such as premature mortality, dementia, and rapidly deteriorating functional abilities.

No matter where the abuse takes place – in a private home or a nursing home – there are certain signs that will indicate neglect or ill-treatment. These include: weight loss, bed sores, bruises, dizziness or depression (from overmedicating), refusing to speak, and even understaffed care facilities.

Victims are often reluctant to report abuse for fear of disbelief, institutionalisation, or future abuse. Some are unable to defend themselves because of their declining mental and physical health. One less considered factor is that in some cases, the elder could have been an abusive parent in the past, or they are currently verbally and even physically aggressive, which increases the chances of their being maltreated themselves.

Addressing the abuse

Many human rights issues have enough attention but not enough action. However, with elder abuse, awareness is the biggest priority, as it gains little notice. Part of the reason for this is that it’s considered to be a private matter.

Firstly, elder abuse is significantly underreported, and proper platforms have to be established for elders to be able to voice their concerns. Defining and detecting this abuse also has to occur within its context; for example, different cultures treat their elders differently. There need to be public and professional awareness campaigns, including school-based programmes, to change negative attitudes about older people, encourage respect, and modify social norms.

Adult protective services, home visitations by police and social workers, and safe houses and shelters all make a positive difference. Care facility-specific interventions should be implemented: sufficient caregiver training and screening; and caregiver support, such as stress management and respite care, to reduce their burden. Residential care policies need to have appropriate licensing requirements and operating standards to decrease the risk of abuse.

Close to home

Elder abuse is an unending human rights violation that continues to be disregarded. The UN Secretary-General’s message for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day highlights the core of this matter:

“It is a disturbing and tragic fact in our world that members of the older generations are too often neglected and abused. This painful reality generally goes ignored by mainstream society. At the same time, the ageing of the world’s population has added urgency to promoting and defending the rights of older persons, who are expected to make up more than 20% of the global population by 2050…

“For many, elder abuse conjures an image of a heartless caregiver who is not well-known to the victim. While this deplorable problem does persist, more often it is family members who perpetrate the violations, which include neglect as well as psychological, financial and physical abuse. Research shows that age, gender and dependency raise the risks of abuses, with women suffering the heaviest toll…

“The distressing crime of elder abuse often occurs in quiet, private settings, making a vocal, public response that much more important.”

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