This 15th June is World Elder Abuse Day. Officially recognised by the United Nations, and held annually, it represents one day when the whole world voices its opposition to the abuse and suffering inflicted on some of our older generation.
According to Hylton Marks, a social worker and member of the South African Association of Social Workers in Private Practice (SAASWIPP), one day a year is certainly not sufficient. “In South Africa, non-profit organisations (NPOs) provide the lion’s share of social services to the elderly. Yet, the government has cut grants to NPOs mercilessly. Were NPOs able to function effectively, we’d have a much better-cared for elderly population.”
Marks, whose practice focuses on working with the elderly, believes that there are both conscious and unconscious forms of abuse towards older people.
Conscious abuse, in his experience, is often that of financial exploitation. Often substance dependent family members use an older person’s grant to feed their addiction. Further, alcohol abuse in families right across the social spectrum frequently leads to abuse of the elderly. This can be through neglect, physical, emotional or verbal abuse. In some communities, dementia is equated with witchcraft and older persons can be vilified and even physically abused.
Unconscious abuse on the other hand could take the form of family members with mental illness lacking insight into the effects of their behaviour on an older person. Sometimes families are also unsure about what resources are available or are reluctant to ask for assistance in managing a difficult situation with an older person. During these times, the elderly are often subjected to abuse through neglect.
During the pandemic, social isolation became an increasingly serious issue. People – especially the elderly – already suffer significant physical and emotional harm through being socially isolated. COVID 19 exacerbated this problem enormously.
“A very serious issue is the non-availability of state subsidized and affordable accommodation for older persons in care homes. And yet this issue appears to be getting no attention or funding from the government. Unfortunately, many older persons are exploited financially – especially by family members who use an older person’s state grant for expenses that have no benefit for the older person.”
Hylton also believes that society often underestimate the value that our elderly bring to a healthy family culture. “Working parents often rely on their parents to assist with caring for children. Healthy interaction between children and grandparents provides the younger generation with positive role models and educates them in cultural norms and identity. In healthy families, children learn both social and life skills from grandparents as well as their own parents. For children who have lost one or both parents, or who have been affected by an acrimonious divorce, the stability and nurturance that grandparents can provide is critical.
”Norms in societies world-wide have also changed, with younger people generally appearing to be less tolerant or mindful of older generations. Social ills have also taken their toll on societies all over the world. However, many young people do still respect and feel a familial bond to their grandparents.”
This an important reason for the establishment of outreach and education programmes regarding care of the elderly in communities.Families of older persons need education particularly when affected by an older person suffering from dementia. Resource centres and suitably funded and equipped NPOs and community organisations would be the ideal means of educating people about helping the elderly.
“There needs to be more resources made available to older persons and their families,” says Marks. “These include access to social and health services, safe accommodation and effective protection by law. Laws, regulations, policy documents, promises and political statements mean nothing if they are not put into practice.
SAPS members, who are almost always the first agency to be approached to assist the elderly when there are allegations or suspicions of neglect and abuse, are already over worked and ill equipped and often lack the training and knowledge to deal with these situations. What is needed is a well-trained police service that is supported by an effective department of social development.”
The elderly brought us all into this world. They need to feel that they’ve not been abandoned or forgotten. Concludes Marks: “The best thing you can do for the elderly is to protect and care for them with frequent reassurances that their family values and loves them.”