Elder abuse - COVID19 is an opportunity for us to address it


We have all heard and seen the stories emerging from New York to Spain about the death toll of COVID19 being largely our generation of elders. The fear they have in isolation is not something new and while many believe this is a recent issue - its not. Loneliness and isolation, suffering in silence and even suffering abuse is not new. From the trends we are seeing in suicide rates with our elders in mostly western countries right through to the reports and data emerging around hospitalisations. Elder abuse is something many who read this article might never of heard of or new it was a thing - but a thing it is.

According to recent UN research around 1 in 6 people 60 years and older experienced some form of abuse in community settings with rates of elder abuse are high in institutions such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities, with 2 in 3 staff reporting that they have committed abuse in the past year. Elder abuse can lead to serious physical injuries and long-term psychological consequences. Elder abuse is predicted to increase as many countries are experiencing rapidly ageing populations. The global population of people aged 60 years and older will more than double, from 900 million in 2015 to about 2 billion in 2050.

So what is elder abuse? Well according to the UN elder abuse is a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person. This type of violence constitutes a violation of human rights and includes physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse; financial and material abuse; abandonment; neglect; and serious loss of dignity and respect.

In New Zealand the Ministry of Social Development have said as many as one in ten older people in New Zealand will experience some kind of elder abuse. The majority of cases will go unreported. In other words many of our elders suffer in silence and isolation. Psychological abuse includes threats, humiliation or harassment. This creates distress, shame, or stress, which often leads to a sense of powerlessness in the older person. It is often a factor in other forms of abuse.

  • Financial abuse ranges from illegal use of your money (or assets) to coercion (such as being pressured to change a will or sign documents).

  • Physical abuse includes any personal harm or injury.

  • Sexual abuse includes any non-consensual sexual activity.

Who commits elder abuse?

The abuser is often someone close to their victim. It is someone trusted: family members, friends and even neighbours. Abusers are often someone they depend on for support or care. And this is why we must bring it out into the open more than ever - we cannot let COVID 19 but a reason to again convince ourselves that not enough has been done - actually in many ways COVID 19 has afford a different opportunity - to focus more time and attention on the very people that are at risk - our elders.

What can we do about it?

According to HealthinAging.org we can reduce the risk of elder abuse by putting systems in place that can prevent abuse from the start. For example, we can create community supports and services for caregivers and older people that can reduce the risk factors tied to elder abuse (such as social isolation). We can increase funding to provide training for people who work in aging-related care on the prevention and detection of elder abuse. We can identify ways to empower older people through senior centers and intergenerational programs that will reduce the harmful effects of ageism (biases against or stereotypes about aging that keep us from fully participating in our communities as we grow older).

In addition to building supports to keep our communities safe, it is also important that we recognize what abuse is and its warning signs. This makes it possible for us to report elder abuse and stop it in its tracks. We can all learn how to recognize, prevent, and report abuse.

Signs of Mistreatment Neglect

  • Lack of clean clothing or clothing inappropriate for the weather

  • Lack of basic hygiene

  • The home is cluttered, dirty, in need of repairs or the home has fire and other safety hazards

  • The home does not have needed utilities such as electricity, working plumbing, heating/cooling

Financial Abuse/Exploitation
  • Unusual patterns of spending or withdrawals from an older adult's account

  • Frequent purchases of inappropriate items

  • Bills going unpaid or utilities being turned off

  • The presence of a new "best friend" who is accepting generous "gifts" from the older adult

Physical Abuse
  • Bruises, especially on the head or torso, and those shaped like a hand, finger, or thumb

  • Unexplained burns, cuts, sores, or other injuries

  • Denying an older person enough food/water, needed medications, or assistive devices such as canes, walkers, hearing aids, and glasses

  • Giving older adults unnecessary tranquilizers or sleeping pills, or confining or tying an older person to a bed or a wheelchair

Emotional/Psychological Abuse
  • Intimidation or yelling

  • Making threats

  • Humiliating or ridiculing someone

  • Isolating an older adult from friends and keeping them from activities they enjoy for no good reason

Over the coming days and weeks i'll be publishing more tips and insights into what we can all do when to comes to prevention and more - what we must do is keep our elders safe; it should be a time for them to slow down with the knowledge they are much loved and valued - not abuse.

Matthew Tukaki is the former head of the world's oldest and largest employment companies, Drake International, former Australian Representative to the UNGC and former Chair of Suicide Prevention Australia. Matthew is currently the Executive Director of New Zealands Maori Council and Chair of that nations National Maori Authority

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