Abuse of vulnerable older people is not something that is confined to institutions
Victim may come under pressure to sign over assets to younger family members
People who have contributed to Irish society all their lives now find the quality of their latter years destroyed by perpetrators of abuse. Photograph: Alan Betson
Imagine seeing unexplained withdrawals from your bank account, or losing your financial independence, or failing to pay your bills or even struggling to afford basic needs such as food, clothing and electricity.
While most Irish families are enduring hardship at the moment in some form, some of our citizens are being deliberately targeted and made victims of mental and physical abuse as well as fraud and other crimes.
The greater tragedy is that in many cases the victims of these crimes are older people. People who, having contributed to Irish society for the entirety of their lives, now find the quality of their latter years destroyed by perpetrators of abuse.
Elder abuse is not a new phenomenon. It has existed historically throughout time.
What is new is the reporting of elder abuse and the consequent debate that is taking place about it.
As we have cast a light on the hidden secrets of Irish society, we uncover uncomfortable truths about people’s willingness to exploit others.
Saturday is World Elder Abuse Day, a day to raise awareness of this unacceptable situation which a recent study shows afflicts over 11,000 people in Ireland.
The Irish experience of elder abuse is varied. High-profile cases such as that of Evelyn Joel in Enniscorthy make headlines as they are exposed in court. But the everyday experience that makes fewer headlines is no less tragic.
The abuse can be defined as a single or repeated act occurring within any relationship that causes harm or distress to an older person and violates their human or civil rights. It can take many forms – emotional, physical and psychological.
In less clinical terms we are discussing bullying, intimidation, grievous bodily harm, rape and fraud. All are crimes that older Irish people have suffered at the hands of abusers in the last 12 months.
A particular area of concern, in light of Ireland’s economic circumstances, is financial abuse, the most common type reported to Senior Help Line, a confidential listening service managed by older people for older people.
Typically, an older person may experience pressure to sign over the family farm, property or assets to relatives. Abusers are rarely anonymous strangers. In many cases they are the adult children of the victim. Research shows this to be the case in 80 per cent of reported cases.
Financial constraints have put families under pressure to maintain a decent standard of living. This has resulted in an increasing number of older people being misled over money or being put under improper pressure to support their adult children financially rather than take care of themselves. Property has been lost, pensions have been raided and savings stolen.
The questionable actions of financial institutions are bad enough, but to have your own family mislead, deceive and even steal from you adds a disturbing undertone of cruelty to the victim’s trauma.
Obviously sustained abuse, in whatever form it manifests itself, can adversely affect a victim’s well-being, leading to sleep problems arising from anxiety, the exacerbation of existing health conditions, and loneliness. The control exerted by the abuser can cause victims to feel prolonged periods of stress, sorrow and anguish.
In 2007 the HSE established a national Dedicated Elder Abuse Prevention Service and has put in place a number of regional Officers for the Protection of Older People who will investigate complaints and take appropriate action.
Senior Help Line has the contact numbers of each protection officer and can refer the caller as necessary.
As long as this abuse persists, searching questions will always remain for victims and society alike. However, there are both preventative and reactive actions that victims can take. Contacting a telephone listening service, such as Senior Help Line, is a good first step.
One of the elements that fosters an environment of abuse is the isolation many older people feel. Many can go days without meeting another person.
It is a tragic irony that in an era where technology creates pocket-sized devices that facilitate instant and frequent communication, many of our older citizens are starved of multiple human contact and become more vulnerable to abuse.
We know that austerity has eroded the confidence of young people and forced many to emigrate. It affects older people too.
A good society measures itself on the treatment of the most vulnerable of its citizens, by ensuring that they are not exploited, harmed or psychologically abused. Raising awareness of this issue is merely the first step and others must follow.
Anne Dempsey is head of communications at Third Age Senior Help Line. Their locall phone number is 1850 440 444