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    Elder Abuse: Human Rights Have an Expiration Date

    Civil societyHuman rightsElder Abuse: Human Rights Have an Expiration Date
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    Elder Abuse: Human Rights Have an Expiration Date

    The United Nations foresees an increase in elder abuse because of the ageing populations: the global population of people aged 60 years and older will more than double, from 900 million in 2015 to 2 billion in 2050.

    By María Isabel Cartón

    One in six people over 60 years of age – nearly 141 million people globally – suffers from abuse, according to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates.

    The World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) (June 15th), aims to raise awareness and eradicate this problem that affects both developing and developed countries.

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    WHO defines elder abuse as “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.” It can take various forms: physical, psychological or emotional, sexual, financial abuse or neglect.

    The lack of accurate data is one of the symptoms of this problem, but a 2017 review of 52 studies in 28 countries from diverse regions provided the pooled prevalence of different types of abuse. At 11.6 per cent, psychological abuse was the most reported and was followed by financial abuse (6.8 per cent), neglect (4.2 per cent), physical abuse (2.6 per cent) and sexual abuse (0.9 per cent).

    The abusers

    This violence happens at home and at institutions such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities. A staggering fact: 90 per cent of abusers are family (adult children, spouses and partners).

    But anybody can fit the abuser profile: relatives, strangers, friends, health care providers, public and private institutions… Whoever interacts with older people, especially with those who suffer a severe disability (i.e. dementia), can easily become abusers.

    HelpAge International points out ageism. “Stereotypes about older people can be used to justify elder abuse or minimise its impact. In many ways, elder abuse is the most harmful expression of societal ageism”.

    The normalization of this violence is a mask that makes it invisible or even an accepted or necessary conduct. So, how can we even identify it? Here are some examples:

    Physical abuse: hitting, pushing and restraining by physical (tying them to furniture) and chemical means (medication). Also sexual abuse.

    Emotional or psychological abuse: use of hurtful words, yelling, threatening or repeatedly ignoring the older adult. Isolation, infantilization and victimization are also forms of emotional abuse.

    Neglect occurs when the caregiver does not try to respond to the older adult’s physical, emotional and social needs (housing, food, medication or access to adequate health care, including aspects such as therapeutic cruelty and therapeutic nihilism).

    Abandonment (leaving an older adult who needs help alone without planning for his/ her care) is also a type of neglect.

    Financial abuse happens when someone steals money or belongings from an older adult (retirement, Social Security benefits, etc.), uses his/her bank accounts or credit cards or changes names on a bank account, insurance policy, house title or will without permission.

    Longevity and inequality

    Inequality determines the way we age and is also in the roots of elder abuse.

    According to a 2008 report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “the increase in life expectancy” was concentrated “in populations continuing on to higher education” and diminished “in the groups having high school diplomas or less”.

    In the OECD countries, a 25-year male with a university degree may live 7.5 years more than another male with lower education level. For women, the difference is 4.6 years. It goes without saying that inequality in education and any other development indicator is worse in the “emerging economies”.

    Gender is also an inequality and abuse trigger, especially at old age. In 2015, 54 per cent of people above 60 were women (61 per cent within those aged 80 or more). Although female life expectancy is higher, their life quality is worse because of poor health and higher rates of abuse.

    During their lifetimes, women suffer marginalization and poverty. Income inequality, differences in education, health services and job market explain why many women have no retirement benefits or lower ones. Moreover, they are the principal caregivers to children and other old people, often without any compensation.

    Gap between the narratives and facts

    The United Nations expects an increase in elder abuse because of the ageing populations: the global population of people aged 60 years and older will more than double, from 900 million in 2015 to 2 billion in 2050.

    During the COVID-19 pandemic rates of elder abuse have increased. Both the poor access to adequate health services and the restriction on social interactions have severely affected the elderly.

    Neither population ageing nor elder abuse are new. There are countless initiatives, campaigns, plans and organizations around the globe trying to bring ageing into the public agenda, but real transformations are yet to come.

    When the conquest becomes the problem

    Between 2015 and 2030 the world population aged 60 or over is expected to grow by 56 per cent, reaching 1.4 billion people in 2030 (16.5 per cent of the total population).

    By then, “older persons are expected to account for over 25 per cent of the population in Europe and Northern America, 17 per cent in Asia and in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 6 per cent in Africa” (UNDP).

    The mainstream narrative that labels groups of population as a nuisance — migrants, women, indigenous people, the elderly… the list is open — denying them humanity and emphasizing that they put “the system” at risk, makes it possible for this violence to be perpetuated.

    Moreover, in the current context of questioning the role of the State and the public sector, it is worth asking whether it is possible to guarantee good treatment of the elderly when what is at stake is no longer the viability of the systems of health and social protection necessary for a long-lived population, but even its mere existence for anyone.

     

     

    María Isabel Cartón is a Spanish journalist, specializing on ageing issues.

     

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