Growing up, how many times did you hear the chestnut of parental wisdom – ‘respect your elders’?

Evidently too few of us heard it enough, perhaps some not at all.

In May last year it was reported that cases dealing with elder abuse in NSW increased by 30 per cent on the previous year and tripled in Victoria.

The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) is currently conducting an inquiry into elder abuse with a view to examining Commonwealth laws and frameworks which are designed to protect the elderly from abuse by formal and informal carers, supporters, representatives and others.

Elder abuse is a tragedy whose remedy lies in the continual upholding of every person’s dignity irrespective of functional utility. The ALRC inquiry into Elder Abuse is a welcome development which should shed light on this important area.

The Commission will be looking at ways in which informal and formal supporter roles can be prevented from being misused or being taken advantage of as well as several other aspects related to abuse of the elderly.

ACL’s submission gave focus to the concern that the exposure of coercion and abuse of the elderly reveals to policy makers that now is certainly not a time to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia.

When we consider the context of vulnerability which the elderly find themselves in, it is clear that assisted suicide and euthanasia can never be legislated with sufficient protections from abuse.

The focus of the assisted suicide and euthanasia campaign in Victoria has regrettably been on ending people’s lives rather than assisting them to live more fully.

The elderly and infirm face many challenges on a daily basis. This does not diminish the value of their lives. Rather, the strength, courage and tenacity of elderly family members can often inspire younger family members to embrace resilience and teach them the value of prioritising relationship over functional utility. 

The vulnerability of the elderly to feel pressure by family members, medical teams and hospital staff to undertake assisted suicide and euthanasia should not be dismissed. Even with supportive families, many elderly or disabled people will be aware of the “burden” they place on their loved ones, financially or emotionally.

“Being a burden” to family and friends is a concern for close to half the people who are given assistance to take their own life in the state of Oregon, which has legalised assisted suicide.

Patients reported the concern of being a burden to family, friends and caregivers in 48 per cent of cases in 2015. This points to an alarming aspect of assisted suicide. It is clear that people in Oregon who feel they are a burden on family and friends see assisted suicide as a way of “resolving” this.

If assisted suicide is legalised, it will put pressure, real or imagined, on some elderly to take their own life when he or she feels a burden.  

As a society, we should be seeking to ease people’s pain through better palliative care, not promoting killing as an alternative to helping them.

ACL advanced these arguments to the ALRC and the submission can be found here.