IF AN OLDER relative, neighbour or friend was being abused, would you recognise the warning signs? And, if you did, would you know how to respond?
Today, 15 June, is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. And, despite the caring, protective, respectful attitude Irish society likes to think it has towards older people, elder abuse is widespread in Ireland.
Age Action’s information service regularly deals with older people who are being abused and who are looking for help, as well as relatives and friends who are trying to intervene in abusive situations. Examples of elder abuse cases include the widow whose alcoholic son collects her pension for her each Thursday, and gives her the €50 he has left from her pension after his weekend drinking.
We have dealt with the case of a man in his 80s who signed over his home to his son on the basis that he would remain living there the rest of his life. His son subsequently married and his new daughter-in-law was seeking to have him admitted to a nursing home.
A severely disabled older lady contacted us to ask what she could do about her daughter, who was her carer, and who regularly pinched and slapped her while dressing and showering her.
We were phoned by an older man who shared his home with his abusive adult son. He regularly verbally abuses and threatens his father, forcing him to remain in his bedroom after 8pm each night and refusing him to allow his other siblings and their children visit.
Elder abuse – it’s all around us. Sadly, many older people are suffering in silence, unaware of what they can do about it.
Elder abuse is defined as a single or repeated action, or lack of appropriate action, which occurs with any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, and which causes harm or distress to an older person. It can take several forms including physical, financial, psychological, material and sexual. It can also take the form of passive or active neglect.
The HSE operates a dedicated elder abuse service to help older people who are victims of abuse. A total of 11,500 alleged elder abuse cases have been reported to the HSE service during the six years up to the end of 2012 – the 2013 figures are due to be published in the coming weeks.
This is just the tip of the iceberg with widespread under-reporting being a global feature of elder abuse. A 2010 report by Ireland’s National Centre for the Protection of Older People found that 10,200 older people have been abused in the previous 12 months, and an estimated 18,700 had been abused since they turned 65.
Age Action believes greater public awareness of elder abuse and the warning signs of abuse would help protect older people. Here a few warning signs to watch for:
- Physical abuse – bruises or cuts, especially to the mouth, lips, gums, ears or eyes. Abrasions, scratches, burns, sprains, missing teeth;
- Financial abuse – unexplained or sudden inability to pay bills. Unexplained or sudden withdrawal of money from accounts;
- Psychological abuse – demoralisation, depression or feelings of hopelessness/helplessness;
- Neglect – dehydration, malnutrition, unkempt appearance, poor hygiene, absence of required aids such as dentures, glasses or hearing aids;
- Sexual abuse – trauma about the genital area, breasts or mouth. Injury to the face, neck, chest, abdomen, thighs or buttocks.
The presence of any of these signs does not mean that an older person is being abused, but it should raise concerns (eg it may turn out that facial injuries are caused by recent falls – equally a reason for concern and for help). But, if you suspect a person is being abused, doing nothing is never an option.
The first step should be to express your concern to the older person and ask them if anything is wrong, or if they would like to talk about it. If they don’t want to talk to you, would they talk to their GP or public health nurse? If they are being abused and want to take action to end the abuse, they should be informed about the existence of the HSE’s dedicated elder abuse service. You can get contact details for your local case work for the protection of older people by phoning the HSE’s information line at 1850 24 1850 (Monday to Saturday, 8am to 8pm). They can also discuss their options confidentially by contacting Age Action’s information service at 01-4756989 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm).
Meanwhile, for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day 2014 Age Action is urging the Irish Government to take an international stand against elder abuse by supporting moves to draft a UN Convention on the Rights of Older People. Freedom from violence and abuse is one of the core rights under international human rights law. The creation of a Convention on the Rights of Older People, could if ratified, pave the way for specific legislation criminalising elder abuse in Ireland.
Age Action is working alongside older people’s groups around the world to support Help Age International’s “Age Demands Action” campaign which is advocating for a UN Convention.
For further details of the campaign in an Irish context click here.
Eamon Timmins is Head of Advocacy and Communications at the older people’s charity, Age Action. For more details visit www.ageaction.ie or follow them on Facebook and Twitter. To learn more about elder abuse visit the dedicated section of the HSE’s website.