The moral strength of any society can be measured by the quality of care it gives to children and the elderly. Maltese society has traditionally treasured family values, and the concept of the extended family that often includes parents and grandparents who remain in close contact with younger generations is well established.
It may therefore shock some people to hear a social worker practising in the community say that “elderly abuse is on the increase”. This appears to be borne out by figures on the number of cases reported to the police. Studies by the World Health Organisation suggest that “between four and six per cent of elderly people have experienced some form of abuse in the home”. Even worse, the World Health Organisation states that “36 per cent of nursing-home staff reported having witnessed at least one incident of physical abuse of an elderly patient in the previous year”.
It is a sad reality that abuse of the elderly “happens to people of all ethnicities and income levels and can be physical, sexual or emotional in nature”. One could also add that neglect and financial exploitation are other facets of this problem afflicting our society.
Maria Camilleri, who is involved in the Maltese Association for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, believes that “laws are needed to halt the increase in elderly abuse”. Good preventive laws are undoubtedly important. But those who are conscious of the severity of this problem argue that enacting laws is just a first small step in the battle against abuse of the elderly.
As with any other problem, one needs to understand the root cause in order to come up with effective solutions. A number of different situations seem to put the elderly at risk of physical and psychological violence.
Strained family relations are often exacerbated by stress and frustration as family members try to cope with the difficulties of modern living and the increasing dependence of elderly relatives for support. This problem is accentuated if the younger relatives of an elderly person they are caring for are dependent on his or her financial support to get by.
Social isolation is another important risk factor for an older person. As people get older and become physically or mentally weaker, they are often abandoned by their younger relatives and eventually by their own friends. This makes them easy prey for those who are constantly looking for ways of exploiting the vulnerable in society.
The erosion of the close family bonds that existed between different generations of the same family, as well as the increase in the number of elderly people, are factors that could see the problem of abuse of the elderly becoming even more serious.
But one needs to look beyond good legislation to prevent this problem becoming more threatening to the wellbeing of our society. The WHO urges governments to use “existing health and social services networks to provide legal, psychological and financial support as well as help with housing and other environmental issues” to support the elderly. This is a very important element in the strategy for active aging which has now been defined but still needs substantial political support and will to be implemented.
The medical profession too has a part to play. Family doctors need to look for the symptoms of abuse when they treat the rlderly in their homes of clinics.
Most importantly, public education and awareness are important elements in preventing the abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable elderly people.
Article prepared by Leon Dubois