Has there ever been a ‘golden age’ where older people were consistently valued, respected and protected by family and the institutions that make up wider society?
The World Health Organisation suggests the abuse of older people occurs in many parts of the world with little recognition or response. This serious social problem is often downplayed or hidden from the public view, and considered mostly a private matter. Even today, the abuse of older people continues to be a taboo, mostly underestimated and ignored by societies across the world. However, evidence is accumulating to indicate that the abuse of older people in the UK is an important public health and societal problem.
The full extent of abuse is unknown, however, its social and moral significance is obvious. As such, it demands an active response, one which focuses on protecting the rights of older persons, and a change in our perspective on whom, and what, we value in society.
Although representations of old age and societal responses to older people have differed over time it could be argued old age has always been viewed as negative.
In ancient Greece old age was portrayed as sad, with the Greeks love of beauty marginalising the old. Although some commentators suggest the reality was more complex with the portrayal of older people in the classics as ‘both pejorative and complimentary’ (Thane, p.32). For Plato reverence toward old people was a guarantee of social and political stability, whereas Aristotle disagreed with such positive images. 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.
Arguably this belief still underpins social care legislation and policy today in respect of older people.
It has been suggested older people’s status in society is linked to their ability to participate in society from an economic perspective, especially in terms of activity in paid employment. Historically where older people have been unable to participate in paid employment, help and support has been provided through a mixture of family and state support, with an emphasis by government on the former rather than the latter. However, commentators suggest, post industrial revolution, another victim of change were older people. The old did not merely lose power, they also lost respect. The rise of the alms-houses, and institutionalised poor-relief, may indicate their children were increasingly shedding responsibility for their support and transferring it to the community.
Although Thane argued, this may have been due to families own depths of poverty, rather than lack of care or a shedding of responsibility.
The abuse of older people was not something government identified as a problem throughout this period, although, self-neglect was identified as an issue which government sought to address in the 1948 National Assistance Act.
This is not to say it did not occur, for example, the 1942 Exceptional Needs Enquiry found most older people living with families were there under sufferance. They were often less well off than those who lived with strangers, and lacked essential items of clothing, bedding or household equipment as families used any provision, such as clothing coupons, for personal use. Whether this constituted abuse is not clear as many families who cared for older relatives were often living in poverty themselves and older people often willingly gave their families any support they could, even if this meant going without themselves. Of course, records do not exist to either confirm or deny whether such relationships were abusive or mutually supportive, however, it might suggest in terms of individual worth and personal identity, a cultural norm existed where the welfare of the younger generation was prioritised over that of the old by both young and old.
However, Peter Townsend’s landmark study of long-stay institutional care for older people in 1950’s Britain, provides a little more insight into the experiences of older people receiving care. One of the interviews he recorded was with a matron of a small private residential home in Greater London, which Townsend suggested was by far the worst home he had visited, was clearly describing abuse, as defined in legislation today.
This suggests the abuse of older people has been going on for a long time. It is increasingly clear the abuse of older people exists, and as a society we cannot ignore it any longer.