Incensed. Appalled. Outraged. Indeed there are a plethora of words to describe how I felt on hearing reports of a rise in suspected cases of elder abuse in England, but I’m not sure any of them accurately do my feelings justice.
What I cannot, have never been able to, and will never be able to comprehend is what motivates anyone to commit such abuse. Of course you could equally argue the case for the abuse of children, women, the disabled and indeed any person, or any animal, in a vulnerable position – it is never, ever justifiable, and the perpetrators should be held to account for their actions.
Why we have a rise in possible cases of elder abuse is, I fear, about more than just a growing older population or the opportunism some may see in that. I would suggest it has as much to do with the societal approach to ageing, mostly because I see and hear so much in everyday practice that constitutes the foundations of elder abuse. The demeaning of older people, the view that they are a drain on resources, complaints that they are a sector of society that doesn’t ‘contribute’ and that they are simply ‘in the way’.
One of the great arguments against legalising euthanasia is the concern that it would lead to many older people being pressured into ending their lives simply because they are at a stage of life when they need more from ‘the system’ than they are currently putting in. This of course conveniently ignores all the years they did ‘put in’, worked hard and contributed to the defence and prosperity of the nation, not to mention parenting and grand-parenting the younger generations we have now.
In our desire to measure so much in monetary terms, we lose sight of the priceless contribution that our older generations bring to their communities – their wisdom, their experiences, their link to our past, their guidance in the present, and their observations on our future. It may be really simple stuff, but it is incredibly important if we are ever to regain the community spirit that we’ve lost, and to teach our younger generations about humility and respect.
I was bought up within an environment that steadfastly instilled in me respect for my elders. Perhaps this was because my parents were older when they had me (my mum was 40), or because we had strong ties with older relatives throughout my childhood (including the great sadness of my grandmother passing away). Or maybe it’s a simple case of engendering a system of values – to speak when you are spoken to and for children to be seen and not heard (my dad’s favourite).
It probably sounds really old-fashioned, but it worked. Knowing your place as a child within your family means that as an adult you have a grounding that no amount of money can buy. I’m a staunch defender of our elders not because my dad lived with dementia for 19 years and became one of those very vulnerable older people, but because my mum and dad taught me about the value of generations and the place of each generation within the overall tapestry of life.
We will all be old one day if good health prevails upon us, and how do we hope to be treated? As a piece of dirt on a younger person’s shoe, or as a valued and respected member of the community? Moreover, for anyone with children, how do you want them to be treated when they get older? Would you be prepared to tolerate them being neglected or physically or mentally abused simple because they cannot fight back?
Ultimately the point about elder abuse is that it could happen to any of us. It isn’t something that only happens to other people. None of us know what care and support needs we may have as we grow older. We may hope to never rely on other people, either within our own family or professionals who are otherwise strangers, but we just don’t know.
Amongst the majority of wonderful care that my father received, he was subjected to treatment which in my mind was undoubtedly abusive, a view backed up by doctors when he was admitted to hospital with aspiration pneumonia (he had aspirated on his own vomit five times) and pressure sores. My dad became the subject of a safeguarding order, and that was despite having an actively involved family who tried to stop the dreadful treatment meted out to him. He never fully recovered and passed away four weeks later.
We know from the scandals at Mid Staffs and other hospital Trusts that abuse isn’t just confined to care homes, and the exposé TV documentaries on bad care only highlight certain individual organisations. I don’t believe that the cases of abuse in people’s own homes that hit the headlines tell the whole story either. My greatest fear is the abuse we don’t hear about; the people who are in pain, soiled, sworn at, neglected or isolated. The people who are fearful of having enough money to pay their bills because someone has conned them. The people who are being told they are worthless and should just die.
Every single one of those people needs us. They need strong voices to highlight their plight, a person to talk to who will help them, effective whistleblowing procedures, a robust system of regulation from CQC to ensure that they are safe, well cared for and happy, and from everyone who lives in their community, respect. It costs nothing, but if it was engendered within all of us, elder abuse and indeed all forms of abuse would never exist.
Until next time…
UK readers can get more information on elder abuse from Hourglass/Action on Elder Abuse or call the Age UK advice line: 0800 055 6112