Tag Archives: Elder Abuse

‘Old age,more feared than death’: have we ever care about older people?

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 (WHO) 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 is an important public health and societal problem.

As such, it demands an active response, one which focuses on protecting the rights of older persons, starting with  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 is more often 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). 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 the elderly. The old did not merely lose power, they also lost respect. The rise of the alms-houses, and institutionalised poor-relief, suggests that their children were increasingly shedding responsibility for their support and transferring it to the community..

Although Thane  argues, 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, whilst his commentary did not discuss the issues raised in terms of ‘abuse’, if, as a researcher today, I were to hear such an account I would make a referral to the local authority and the regulatory body for residential care, the Care Quality Commission, as the interview is clearly describing ‘abuse’ as defined in policy today.

This suggests the abuse of older people has been going on for a long time, but has been hidden from public view, but we do know now don’t we.

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Today is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day 15th June 2013: this is not about blame, it’s about change…………

The United Nations has designated the 15th June of every year as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Across the world communities come together on this date to shine a light on the problem of elder abuse.

The abuse of older people is not a new phenomenon unfortunately. The US was one of the first to identify the abuse of older people as a social and political issue that required action. Research developed in the 1980’s in Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Norway, Sweden and the US 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 (World Health Organisation,2002).

In the UK staying out of harm’s way for many is just 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, on the hospital ward, in the residential institution or in the individuals own home, well hidden from public view. For those living in the midst of abuse violence permeates many aspects of their lives, sometimes perpetrated against them by carers’, professionals, family members or others known to them. Although government and society are increasingly aware of the abuse of older people it stills seems to persist. The Francis report highlights how poor care in a hospital setting actually constitutes abuse, we have also seen disturbing media reports regarding abusive treatment of older people in residential homes. Sadly even in individuals own homes some older people are not safe from abusive behaviour. This provides a disturbing view of how older people are valued in society and how some are cared for in the UK.

This is not about blame, it’s about change, let’s make a difference together.

You can get involved and make a difference by contacting Action on Elder Abuse, a charitable organisation fighting to improve the care and protection of older people across the UK, click here to find out how you can work together on the 15th of June to raise awareness and make a difference to older people in your community.

If you, or your organisation, is involved in the care and support of older people in the UK the National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work have developed resources to help develop the skills and knowledge required in the workforce to ensure older people are protected from abuse and supported to live lives without fear. Please click here if you would like more information, or go to our website http://www.ncpqsw.com

If you know of an older person being abused contact your local social services Safeguarding Adults team, or ring Action on Elder Abuse helpline 080 8808 8141. If you feel someone is at immediate risk of harm contact the appropriate emergency services.