Bad treatment of the elderly by family members is rife, driving many to an early grave.
We’re even more shocked by cases such as that of 76-year-old Aucklander Ena Dung, whose emaciated body was found lying in her own waste following months of neglect by her daughter, who is now serving a 13-year jail term.
But what if you’re in charge of your elderly father’s credit card and you regularly use it to buy small treats for yourself without asking his permission? Or you tell your 76-year-old mother she can’t get hearing aids because they’re expensive and she won’t need them for much longer anyway, but you’re secretly more worried about the effect the purchase will have on your inheritance?
As Stephanie Clare, chief executive of Age Concern, points out, elder abuse exists on a continuum: “It can start with an opportunistic taking advantage of that person.” That can then escalate into something more serious.
An estimated one in 10 older people experience abuse, neglect or exploitation, though much of it goes unreported. Age Concern, which provides elder-abuse and neglect-prevention services throughout New Zealand, found that abuse had occurred in 1698 of the 2121 referrals of suspected mistreatment it received in the 2015/16 financial year.
Hanny Naus, the services’ professional adviser, has seen it all, from full-on neglect to crimes of omission, such as rarely visiting or calling an elderly parent. And while the latter may seem relatively benign, the health consequences can be serious.
“Lack of social contact is hugely implicated in people’s health outcomes,” she says.
In fact, a recent British study found that the health benefits of having adequate social contact are similar to those gained from giving up smoking.
Research carried out at Rush University in Chicago has found that older people who experience abuse, neglect and exploitation are more likely to be hospitalised than those who don’t. They’re also twice as likely to die prematurely – and four times as likely to die from heart disease.
Age Concern figures show that more than three-quarters of alleged abusers are family members and more than half are adult children and grandchildren. And unlike other kinds of family violence, women are almost as likely to commit elder abuse as men. “Elder abuse is not just physical – women can take advantage of others as much as men,” says Clare.
Physical abuse is relatively uncommon. Age Concern’s figures show that four-fifths of cases involve psychological abuse, half financial, a fifth physical and another fifth neglect.
“Psychological abuse can underpin all abuse,” says Clare. “It’s the one thing that devalues or makes an older person even more vulnerable.”
Naus says psychological abuse can include belittling an older person – “someone might tell them they’re smelly and they have to stay in their room when visitors arrive” – or threatening to cut off contact with their grandchildren if they don’t provide some kind of financial support.
She says money often lies at the heart of abuse, particularly the desire by family members to preserve their inheritance. That can lead to decisions that have a negative effect on the older person’s health, such as refusing to pay for dental care or new glasses.
She’s also seen cases where older people have been forced to sell their house and move in with family members, who use the proceeds to start a business.
And although extreme neglect and physical abuse are rare, more insidious forms of physical abuse are not.
“It’s much more likely to be a case of holding them in place so they can’t get up and move, not giving them their glasses so they can’t see, not giving them their walking stick so they’re stuck or not helping them to go to the toilet so they soil themselves.”
Naus says that ultimately, elder abuse is caused by a lack of respect for the rights and dignity of older people. “It’s carried out by people – usually family members – who are more focused on their own needs than the needs of the older person.”
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is today, June 15.
This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.