As the BBC expose the abuse of older people with undercover filming on Panorama (9pm,30/04/2014), I wonder will we ever care about older people?
For many staying out of harm’s way is a matter of locking doors and windows and avoiding dangerous places, people and situations; however for some older people it is not quite so easy. The threat of abuse is behind those doors, well hidden from public view and for those living in the midst of such abuse violence permeates many aspects of their lives, most frequently perpetrated against them by those charged with providing their care. Regardless of where the care is provided, or who is delivering it, many older people today are at significant risk of harm.
At the heart of the problem lie the individual, personal and institutional attitudes of those charged with providing care for older people, which fails to treat older people compassionately. Our culture of indifference toward older people does a great deal of harm, not just to them, but to us as a society. I rememeber a quote from an article published three years ago following a report from the Health Service Ombudsman, that highlighted the abyssmal care older people received in hospital settings, the headline was ‘A society lacking in humanity’, It’s still pertinent today.
“(F)or a while we may pause to express outrage. But we then move on to the urgent business of our daily lives. Spot checks and hit squads may arrest the worst practice… But they will not do much about a society that has hardened its heart against the elderly.” (Independent.co.uk, 16.02.11)
The question is what will soften those hardened hearts?
Government is reluctant to intervene and introduce a stronger legislative framework, Instead, it is seeking to extend responsibility for protecting older people from abuse to “Big Society” , stating ‘people and communities have a part to play in preventing, recognizing and reporting neglect and abuse. It is everyone’s responsibility to be vigilant whilst Government provides direction and leadership, ensuring the law is clear but not over intrusive’ (DoH, 2010, p.25).
However, is ‘Big Society’ able, and willing, to make the care and protection of older people its business, has it ever?
Historically older people, and old age, have often been viewed negatively, and this has arguably contributed to wider societies apparent indifference. Cicero’s work De Senectute, written in 44 BC, points to the variety in individual experiences of ageing, acknowledging that for those who are poor and without mental capacity ageing is miserable, however, suggesting older people need to strive throughout their life to remain intellectually and physically able. A couple thousand years later not much seems to have changed, as research suggests those most vulnerable to abuse are the poor, women, and those over the age of 85 years with dementia.
The abuse of older people is clearly not a new phenomenon, it’s an age old problem, one not just confined to the UK.
Recognition of the abuse and maltreatment of older people throughout the world is not new. Research developed in the 1980’s in Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Norway, Sweden and the USA confirmed this was an international phenomena. The following decade saw developments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, Israel, Japan, South Africa, the UK and other European countries. Undercover filming in Italy last year showed the shocking abuse some older people experience in care, it’s distressing to watch, I cannot imagine how distressing it was for those experiencing it.
However, none of this means we can be complacent in the UK.
From a European perspective research suggests older people’s experience of ageing in the UK falls behind that of many of its European counterparts, with the UK performing most poorly on indicators such as income, poverty and age discrimination. The report states “the UK faces multiple challenges in providing older people with a positive experience of ageing, scoring poorly (although not always the worst) across every theme of the matrix” (WRVS, 2012, p.8).
It would be foolish to think the abuse of older people is just about problems with individual carers because we cannot ignore the effects of systematic inequalities in liberal societies that effectively exclude, or compromise the rights of older people. Older people’s experiences of ageing in the UK can be improved, and it is all of our responsibility to try and achieve this. However, we need a coherent strategy to bring about the change desired by many who work to support older people. Government in the UK tend to address issues associated with an ageing population within individual silos. Research from Europe suggests those countries taking a joined up approach, where government consider how factors such as income, health, age discrimination and inclusion interact, the more successful policy approaches are likely to be to improve the experience of ageing.
Addressing the abuse of older people is a complex issue, there is no one answer but a series of answers that if woven coherently together would make a difference.
It must be terrifying being an older person today in need of care and support.