Prevent elder abuse. That’s like saying, Prevent domestic violence. Or prevent child abuse. At first glance, preventing abuse seems an impossible task. But there are steps we can take to prevent elder abuse.
It is more difficult to mistreat a fit, active old person.
I once knew a kind old woman. Perhaps she wasn’t all that old. But old enough to have a married daughter. And certainly she was old enough to know better. But she didn’t have a clue what was going to happen if she wasn’t careful.
Last week, around a hundred professionals whose work involves older people and their well-being attended a launch of a document, Elder Abuse Protocol: Guidelines for Action. The event washosted by Advocare Inc., the lead agency of the Alliance for the Prevention of Elder Abuse:WA* (APEA:WA) at the Leadership Centre of the Australian Institute of Management. As the inaugural CEO of Advocare Inc. I was privileged to attend and delighted to see the work that these two organisations are doing.
The new Protocol provides general information about elder abuse, as well as information about appropriate responses to elder abuse for staff who work in organisations that deal with older people.
A seventy-year-old woman in a nursing home finds two masked men in her room early one morning. She yells for help but they knock to the ground and she suffers minor bruising. The intruders steal two handbags containing small change that belong to the staff on duty. The incident is reported on television news and on page 5 of the local newspaper. The intruders are later caught and convicted of break and entry, assault and theft.
A woman of similar age who lives in a nearby suburb does not escape so lightly. She has slight paralysis on her left side as the result of a cerebrovascular accident (stroke) a few years ago. She’s mentally alert and competent and lives alone with some support from aged care services. She completes a couple of cryptic cross-word puzzles a week; enjoys putting 1 000 piece jigsaw puzzles together; and sees friends regularly.
Unfortunately, many years ago, thinking she was preparing well for her old age, she donated enduring power of attorney to her only son so that he could manage her finances if she was ever incapable of looking after them herself. In the weeks while she was in hospital immediately following the stroke, when she had temporarily lost her decision-making capacity, he assumed power of attorney and took control of her finances.
Now he refuses to relinquish that power. He manages her bank accounts, pays all her household bills, gives her an allowance for food, and maintains tight control over her money. She is distressed by the predicament she finds herself in. The most recent episode was his response when she asked for $200 from her bank account to replace her shabby tracksuits and underclothes.
‘Don’t be so silly, Mum,’ he said.You don’t need new clothes. You don’t go anywhere. Why waste money on stuff you don’t need?’
The son may not see his behaviour as elder abuse. After all, he might argue, the old lady’s needs are being met. He is only looking after the inheritance he will, in his opinion, rightly acquire when she dies. He does not acknowledge that he no longer has a right to her power of attorney or access to her finances; and the money he ‘refuses’ to ‘give’ his mother is not his, but hers.
There have been no headlines in newspapers about the financial abuse of this old woman, nor are there likely to be in the near future. Financial abuse of elders takes many forms, and this story is simply one illustration.
There are other kinds of violence inflicted on older men and women by their families and ‘friends’ – people everyone expects they should be able to trust. Elder abuse includes physical, emotional and social abuse and neglect. We don’t hear a lot about it. No one likes to admit they are being mistreated and many older people are afraid to talk about it.
‘Elder abuse is not something newspapers like to cover,’ a journalist told me earlier this week. ‘Even if I wrote a really good article, it wouldn’t be printed.’
Short personal history
In the 1970s, domestic violence was not considered a crime. Men were allowed, under the law, to rape their wives. Police frequently sided with the perpetrator when called to a scene of domestic violence. The courts and the churches often turned a blind eye to the plight of victims of familial violence. They declined to condemn perpetrators in the same way they blindly failed to condemn perpetrators of child abuse.
The second wave Feminist Movement went some way to change community attitudes towards domestic violence.
In the 1970s a group of people, all of us passionate about social justice, set up Emmaus, the second women’s refuge in Western Australia in an old, four-bedroom house that we rented in Inglewood. We had little money, a great deal of goodwill – and no government assistance. Emmaus was soon full of women and children escaping violent husbands and fathers.
In the early 1980s, I was invited to represent Community Health Nurses on the Western Australian Advisory and Coordinating Committee on Child Abuse. At the time, I was working as the nurse in a high school and encountered children who were victims of abuse on an almost daily basis.
In the early 1990s, farsighted social workers, counsellors, teachers and others concerned with the welfare of women, children and families began to make connections, not seen before, between domestic violence and child abuse.
These days it is widely acknowledged that domestic violence in all its forms including child abuse is never OK.
But so far in our society there has been no major breakthrough in attitudes to elder abuse . Elder abuse receives little publicity and is barely recognised, perhaps because older people in our society receive less respect than they deserve.
However, there are some organisations which work tirelessly to bring this injustice to the consciousness of the community.
Advocare Inc. and the Alliance for the Prevention of Elder Abuse:WA (APEA:WA) are two such organisations. They define elder abuse as ‘any act which causes harm to an older person and occurs within an informal relationship of trust, such as family or friends…Abuse can take many forms, including financial or material abuse, neglect, emotional or psychological abuse, social abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse’.
According to APEAWA, elder abuse is underreported. But it is estimated that between two and five percent of older people will experience abuse, which means that between 6 000 and 15 000 older Western Australians could be affected.
Section of audience at launch of Elder Abuse Protocol
The protocol launched last week states:
In addressing elder abuse, the rights of the older person must be supported. Older people have the right to make decision, take risks, or refuse supports and interventions, as long as they have the cognitive capacity to make informed decision and can understand the consequences of those actions.
If you think you may be, or could in future be, the victim or elder abuse, or if you suspect someone you know may be the victim, please ring Advocare Inc. on (08) 9479 7566 and talk to an advocate who will provide information about the steps you can take, and if necessary support you.
Congratulations to everyone involved in producing Elder Abuse Protocol: Guidelines for Action, such a successful launch, and to those who supported its publication, especially the Department of Local Government and Communities for funding.
*Agencies which comprise APEA:WA are Advocare Incorporated; the Department of Aboriginal Affairs: Department of Local Government and Communities; Department of Health WA; Disability Services Commission; Legal Aid (WA); Office of the Chief Psychiatrist; Office of the Public Advocate; Public Trustee; WA Police; Western Australian Local Government Association.