Today is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. At ANZASW we believe that elder persons should be honoured, celebrated and, where necessary, protected. On days such as this, we should all be mindful of the struggles that many of our elders face.
The World Health Organisation 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."
Elder abuse can express itself in many ways; broadly speaking, there are three main categories of abuse: financial, physical (including sexual) and psychological.
Neglect- not providing for essential needs- is another form of abuse that is all too common.
The issue of elder abuse and neglect is deeply connected to social justice: no fair society should tolerate the deprivation or mistreatment of those who have contributed to it the longest. For this reason, ANZASW believes that more resources should be put into combating elder abuse and neglect.
Across the country, social workers are at the forefront of the struggle to prevent or respond to elder abuse. They often have to deal with complex and challenging situations in which the victim may not be able to consent to interventions because of reduced mental capacity, and/or where their abusers are people who are close to them.
Age concern statistics show that that 76% of alleged abusers are family members. Elders in abusive situations can often normalise their mistreatment or can be reluctant to report the abuse because they are dependent on their family for care.
Social workers provide indispensable help to elders who are being abused, helping to empower them to make decisions that will increase their security, dignity and independence, removed from coercion or external pressure. They facilitate solutions in a holistic and compassionate manner, or provide support to prevent abuse before it starts.
Yet too often social workers are overloaded by demand. As one social worker and ANZASW member, told us: “In [my city] I’m the only social worker for older people in the community. The only one. So my workload is horrendous...I don’t have time for day to day social work, which is scary because we see the need and no-one’s filling it.”
ANZASW believes that by increasing the number of social workers assisting elders in the community, the rate of elder abuse can be lowered significantly and hidden cases of abuse can be identified.
Identification of elder abuse is the responsibility of all professionals so provision of education on recognition of and responding to elder abuse is essential
ANZASW also believes that social and economic factors that deepen the vulnerability of elder persons to abuse needs to addressed. More elders are not mortgage free at retirement and struggle to maintain appropriate housing and have sufficient to live off.
The primacy of economics in modern western society has resulted in the devaluation of elders; they can struggle to find work, or if they are retired, they can be labelled as non-contributors to the economy. Such perceptions feed ageist values, which elder persons can internalise, leading to worsening mental health and an increasing reliance on informal caregivers who can take advantage of their distress.
In addition to this, the increased financial precarity of elder persons is contributing to them becoming more dependent on others, often family members, leaving them open to exploitation, pressure and coercion.
ANZASW takes the view that improving the economic wellbeing of elders through greater welfare support will contribute to the diminishment of vulnerability to abuse.
ANZASW is committed to challenging discrimination and marginalisation of elder persons and celebrates the invaluable work that social workers do to provide dignity and protection to victims of abuse, both in Aotearoa New Zealand and around the world.