Like child abuse, the abuse of vulnerable elderly people is particularly objectionable, and unlawful. When someone deliberately hurts a child or elder who is too weak or afraid to protect themselves, it goes against every sense of decency, humanity and compassion.
But, just as a new mother may be driven to lashing out after one too many sleepless nights, those caring for elders can also break under stress. Especially if their care goes unnoticed or is misinterpreted as trying to control the elder and they are subject to a constant stream of criticism from an older person suffering from deteriorating mental conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Support for carers and elders
Whilst elder abuse can never be condoned, as a preventative measure, steps need to be taken to support those caring for complex older people and, if necessary, to find alternative care solutions to protect both parties.
In instances where vulnerable older people are abused by those whose job it is to look after them, there must be mechanisms for accountability and liability. We’ve seen far too many cases of older people with black eyes, or arms covered in bruises after being physically mishandled, sometimes deliberately, by their caregivers.
Unfortunately, the perpetrators often get away with the abuse by claiming that the elderly person fell or knocked themselves against a doorway or sharp object. Older people do bruise easily, and are prone to stumbling and falling. Even if the victim complains, he or she may not be believed; a convincing perpetrator will use the elder’s failing memory as proof that they don’t really remember what happened.
There are also instances where victims of abuse feel inclined to protect their abusers with whom they have familial connections as they fear the consequences their caregiver may face. This results in many cases of elder abuse going unreported or being withdrawn by the victim.
Different types of abuse
But physical abuse is not the only form of harm suffered by older people. Any act (or lack of action) that causes harm or distress to an older person falls under the definition of elder abuse.
Abuse can be passive, where an elder who is dependent on others is neglected – left without food, water and medication, or left lying in soiled bedlinen – or even abandoned entirely by those responsible for his or her care. This can cause as much distress and suffering as physical abuse and even result in death.
Elders may be subjected to emotional and verbal abuse, where a pattern of degrading or humiliating treatment or words leads to feelings of rejection, isolation, worthlessness, oppression and depression. Elders may also be intimidated by threats and forced into doing something they don’t want to do – e.g. handing over their pension money.
In South Africa and other countries where poverty levels and unemployment are high, many elders are subject to financial abuse. Situations where an elder has his or her pension card stolen, or their bank account emptied by family members, are all too common. This is especially the case where the elder suffers from a condition like Alzheimer’s or Dementia and is unable to understand what is happening. Their possessions may be stolen, or sold without their consent, or they may be tricked into giving possessions away.
Most heinous of all is sexual abuse, where a vulnerable elder is violated for sexual or erotic gratification without their consent, and sometimes even without their knowledge or understanding.
How abusers get away with it
If the victim has a disease like Alzheimer’s, it’s all too easy for the abuser to refute any allegation of wrong doing and claim that the victim is talking nonsense. Elders in this position may endure years of abuse; either they are unaware of what is happening, or they start to doubt the validity of their recollections.
Even when victims know exactly what is going on, they may be too afraid to complain for fear of retaliation, ridicule, being abandoned, or making the situation worse. In cases where the abuser is a son, daughter or other close relative, elders may put up with it because they feel ashamed, want to protect the family or still feel affection for their loved one, and will find excuses for their behaviour.
If you suspect that an elder is being subject to any kind of abuse, please speak out. It’s better to be safe than sorry. You are welcome to report cases anonymously to our social worker on 031 332 3721 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alternatively, you can contact your nearest police station or the Department of Social Development