Today, June 15, is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It serves as a sad reminder that in many societies, including our own, people of advanced years often experience mistreatment at the hands of those entrusted to care for them.
Elder abuse takes many forms, but it commonly involves psychological abuse or financial exploitation, and is often a combination of the two. And while it usually occurs between family members, friends and paid care workers are sometimes responsible.
Because it is often hidden and may not manifest in observable forms, elder abuse is described as being “the last form of family violence to come to public attention.”
The problem is gradually receiving the attention of government, with a NSW Legislative Council committee releasing its report into elder abuse in June last year. And just last month, the Australian Law Reform Commission published its final report, Elder Abuse – A National Legal Response.
Yet as these reports demonstrate, Australia’s legal systems are largely blind to the types of abuse elderly persons experience and there is an urgent need for governments to redress these shortcomings.
This need is made even more pressing when it has been alleged that, in NSW at least, not only does the state’s legislation lack sufficient safeguards against financial abuse (often resulting from what has been termed “inheritance impatience”), but that the law is itself a “significant enabler of abuse,” especially with respect to legislation presently regulating enduring powers of attorney.
An insight into the problem comes by way of data collected by the NSW Elder Abuse Helpline, which received 2,234 calls relating to abuse between 2013-2015. It revealed that almost half of all abuse was money-related, and that seven in ten alleged perpetrators were relatives, the largest group of whom were adult children (47%).
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, such findings are not dissimilar from the experience in Queensland and Victoria.Given the growing and worthy concern about rates of elder abuse in Australia, hard questions ought to be asked before two states – Victoria and New South Wales – vote on assisted suicide legislation in the months ahead.
As the evidence in the NSW Legislative Council’s report into elder abuse attests, those of advanced years are particularly vulnerable to manipulation, and much of that manipulation is linked to financial interests vis-à-vis inheritances and the like.
This vulnerability is compounded, according to the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Ageing (MACA), because Australian society, with its strong utilitarian outlook, is becoming increasingly ‘ageist’.
In such a culture, alleges the MACA, “older people may internalise feelings of low self-worth, become more passive and feel more dependent. Such perceptions can lead to an older person believing that they deserve to be treated more poorly than others and avoid speaking up when experiencing abuse from family members or a caregiver.”
It is unacceptable that older Australians are being allowed to fall prey to, among other people, avaricious family members. A number of recommendations to rectify such problems have been put forward in the aforementioned reports, and legislating those changes would go a long way to securing the interests of Australian seniors.
At the same time, the situation will certainly not be helped for this demographic by normalising assisted suicide, which will foreseeably become an additional way by which elder abuse might manifest itself.
As God’s Word reminds us and we would do well to heed: “Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” (Exodus 20:12)