Sunday, June 15 marked the United Nations Assembly on Ageing World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It is a day that went by failing to attract mass media attention, despite the very real presence of elder abuse within our families, communities and institutions. It is an issue that evokes a great sense of discomfort, shame and fear and is seldom acknowledged or spoken about.
For the past few years I have been working as an advocate for older Victorians. My work has provided me with a great deal of insight into the issue of elder abuse and I have been involved with government and community lead strategies to prevent and resolve this appalling social issue.
Despite the best efforts of my colleagues at all levels of government and human service sectors, it is an indisputable fact that many within our ageing population continue to feel anxious, frightened and hurt by us in their retirement years.
How often do we hear horror stories of abuse and neglect of older people in nursing homes - places where older people are reassured they will be well cared for and feel safe and secure.
How often do we witness incidents of elder abuse without giving it a second thought: the elderly mother in the supermarket being told off by her daughter for putting butter in the trolley when she has a cholesterol problem; the elderly woman’s dismay at having to replace the butter, and confusion at why she is not allowed to eat butter when for so long she had been unable to afford it.
How often do we see older people we love and care for being hurt, neglected or ignored. Yet, so few of us think to do anything about it, or when we do take action, our complaints fall upon deaf ears.
I know of one elderly man, Tony*, recently widowed, who has endured over ten years of abuse at the hands of his own children. He admits to being hit, pushed, screamed at, stolen from and taken advantage of.
His son brazenly used Tony’s home as the headquarters for his illegal drug dealing activities, even after serving three years in prison, while Tony’s daughter, entrusted with the management of Tony’s superannuation, blew the lot on sports cars and a fast lifestyle. Her shameless actions have left her father penniless after slaving 40 years in the steel works in order to give his family a better life, having migrated from Eastern Europe in the 1960s.
Their behaviour has been not only broken laws; it has broken his heart. Now he is not just fearful for his financial security; he is fearful of harm at their hands.
Sadly, unless he chooses to report the abuse to authorities, there is little anyone can do. I have beseeched him to seek help, and if necessary press charges, but isolated due to his increasing fragility and diminishing social networks, he remains a loyal father, anxious to protect his children from the law and to hold on to the familiar contact they provide for him.
In our multicultural society, our understanding and identification with ageing and older people differs greatly. Our various cultures and religions shape the way that we treat and value each other.
As a child of migrants myself, I understand and share the difficulty and frustration experienced by other first and second generation Australians in negotiating intergenerational conflicts over values and lifestyles. Still, I have yet to come across a culture that does not encourage its young to grow up to respect their elders.
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