The worst thing about elder abuse is not that it happens. But that it’s so easy to get away with.
You can punch, slap or kick a frail old person … steal from them … deprive them of food, water or medication … shout at them or mock them … or leave them for sitting on the toilet for hours – and, more often than not, they won’t tell anyone what you did.
Because they’re afraid.
Just like children and animals, vulnerable elders are helpless against those who attack or prey on them. Often, the abuser is a family member – a child or grandchild – on whom the old person is completely dependent. To complain is to risk further abuse, isolation to prevent any further communication with people who might help, or even abandonment.
Old people bruise easily and, because they’re often unsteady on their feet, are more prone to bumping into walls and doorways. So cuts, bruises and broken bones, can easily be explained away. If the old person tries to tell an outsider what really happened, the abuser can claim they’re confused or suffering from dementia.
So it’s hardly surprising that there are no hard statistics available. And yet, we know it happens – and it’s getting worse.
“Elder abuse is often described as a silent epidemic, not just here in South Africa, but around the world,” explains Tafta CEO, Femada Shamam. According to the World Health Organisation, more than one in 10 older adults may experience some type of abuse, but only one in five cases or fewer are reported.
Abuse can be physical (hurting the old person or neglecting their basic human needs), emotional (humiliating, isolating, intimidating or ignoring them), financial, or sexual.
This year, Tafta is launching the Purple Hearts Campaign, encouraging others to ‘Do the Right Thing’ and report suspected abuse to the Chief Social Worker at the nearest Social Development office or police station. Elder abuse is a crime – and those who attack vulnerable elders need to understand that it will not be tolerated.