Time to face up to reality of elder abuse
OPINION:Ageist attitudes contribute to abuse of older people and its tolerance by society
TODAY MARKS World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Elder abuse is a societal issue and can occur to any older person, regardless of social class, age or dependency, although increasing age increases risk.
Like child protection and domestic violence, elder abuse remains a difficult topic, shrouded in secrecy, particularly as most abuse occurs within the home environment and by family members. Thus, disclosure is mired in issues of family allegiance, embarrassment, anxiety regarding legal entanglement and if the perpetrator is the main care-giver, forced admission to a nursing home may be a fear.
Defining elder abuse is challenging but there is a professional consensus that it may be perpetrated in many ways, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, financial/material abuse and neglect.
Separate research undertaken by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, Age Action Ireland and research in both the UK and Sweden indicates elder abuse is perceived by older people themselves as being influenced by societal and political realities, as well as a lack of valuing of the individual older person.
In this regard, ageist attitudes and practices certainly contribute to abuse of older people and its tolerance by society.
One significant response to ageism is the ongoing United Nations focus on consolidating the rights of older people within a dedicated convention, similar to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. This will underpin a clear focus on protecting older people and ensuring equal rights with other age groups. But such a convention is needed now. There is no time for delay.
In Ireland, much progress has been made in both service provision and societal awareness. Subsequent to the 2007 recommendations of the Irish Government’s policy document on elder abuse, the Health Service Executive established a dedicated service to respond to allegations of elder abuse. Referral figures have been rising year on year, with 2,302 in 2011 alone.
Media campaigns have increased public discourses and emphasised the unacceptability
of elder abuse. The Law Reform Commission has also made recommendations to update legislation to improve protection, most notably within the forthcoming Scheme of Mental Capacity Bill, due to be debated in the Oireachtas in the near future.
Furthermore, the establishment of the National Centre for the Protection of Older People (NCPOP), a multidisciplinary collaboration of researchers led by the School of Nursing, Midwifery Health Systems in University College Dublin, has led to important insights on the issue of elder abuse in Ireland.