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Shedding light on elder abuse

Gillian Bouras |  22 February 2016

To become old is usually to become invisible. Not always, and not always completely, but very often. Shakespeare has a person growing through seven ages and stages, and then moving inexorably into the time of 'the lean and slippered pantaloon', after which the individual's 'strange and eventful history' sinks into 'mere oblivion'.

Elderly person face half in shadowHorror stories about the process abound. Whereas fortunate people have an interesting and rewarding old age followed by what the Greeks call a kalos thanatos, a good death, the unfortunates are many, and their plight is often ignored or unknown.

For elder abuse resembles child abuse in its iceberg qualities: both categories have received little attention until comparatively recently.

And in the case of elder abuse, very few cases ever come to court: old people are just as helpless as children, and are similarly unable to plead their own cases. And are afraid to: they have little power. The Yiddish proverb springs to mind: If you can't bite, don't show your teeth.

The loss of power and independence are features of old age, and so, often, is isolation. In Greece still, old people usually live in a three-generation set-up, but can often feel lonely within it.

'She never tells me anything,' an old Greek woman once complained to me about her daughter-in-law. She did not complain about the room that shocked me: the bare boards, the wind whistling through cracks in the walls, the fact that there was nothing there apart from a narrow bed and a small cupboard. No, it was the sense of being out of things, the lack of social interaction, that mattered.

The lack of control is another problem. My sons' great-uncle was 87; he knew he was near death and, with that Greek spirit of acceptance, was quite calm about the prospect. But the young village doctor insisted he go to hospital, where various measures could and would be taken.

Uncle Vangelis begged his children to let him die at home: he had never spent even an hour in hospital. The children, predictably, listened to the doctor, and so the poor old man was loaded into an ambulance. He was dead within 24 hours, also predictably.

Of course there are many worse cases: in comparison, these examples can hardly be termed abuse. But in both instances there was an implicit lack of respect; there was also no acknowledgement of the old person's pride, dignity, and wishes.

The term abuse is a blanket and umbrella one in that it covers a lot. Experts list the headings of physical, emotional, and financial abuse. Added to these are neglect and abandonment.

The most consistent offenders, sad to say, are family members, who are often adept at exploiting the fear that is part of ageing: possibly the greatest fear is that of abandonment. The general picture of exploitative family members suggests a dearth of empathy; they have no imagination or thought of their own old age, and seem to imagine that the old have outlived their 'usefulness.'

Some care homes exhibit the same attitudes, and are indifferent to the expectation of trust the old are entitled to have. I recently read of the first corporate manslaughter conviction in England relating to a care home. The director admitted manslaughter by gross negligence, and was sentenced to three years and two months in gaol.

The case concerned an 87-year-old woman who had languished in the home, now closed, for 48 days. When 'rescued' she weighed less than four stone, half her normal body weight, was dehydrated, and suffering from pressure sores. She was transferred to another home, where she died a fortnight later.

The report was typically matter-of-fact and skimpy in detail. But two points in it interested me greatly. The woman's plight was noticed by a 19-year-old carer, who notified the relevant authorities. She had worked at the home for only three days.

It comes as no surprise to learn that the deceased's family has issued a statement in which they attribute her 'undignified end' to the 'terrible care' she had received at the first home. Nothing can let those responsible at the home off this dreadful hook, but the young carer acted on the strength of three days' observation. Where were family members during the 48 days of the old woman's residence?


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

The 4th National Elder Abuse Conference is to be held in Melbourne from 23 to 25 February.



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Submitted comments

The problem with mistreating the very old is that very soon they will be meeting God to tell him all about you.

Roy Chen Yee 19 February 2016

A pertinent and disturbing article. It is sad that most goes unpunished.

Edward Fido 19 February 2016

Another raw and very truthful article; I happen to come across elder abuse constantly in my line of work- It seems the abusers know exactly what to do in order to legally 'get away with it'. There should more articles like this !!

Stathis T 22 February 2016

One of my paternal aunts many years ago lamented the hard-heartedness of her own father who refused his wife (my Scottish grand-mother) her desire to have her immigrant mother the chance to stay with them following her stroke so that she might care for her mother. I understand it broke her heart. Years later that same aunt and one of my paternal uncles took it in turns to have my grandmother stay with them when dementia was identified. My maternal grandmother languished - out of a church retirement home unit-cum-hospital when it could not accommodate her in the hospital section - in a vast Victorian (I use it in the sense of signifying the almost Dickensian character) "hospital" former hotel I guess - rooms and verandahs filled with beds of elderly folk near the uncomfortable and suffering ends of their days. When I visited (35 years ago now) she spoke of how every time the doctors came by she would plead with them to allow the dignity of dying that same day. The gothic character of that place and of my darling grand-mother in that setting stays with me. And she had eight adult children - in all kinds of contexts, mind - but as you point out with the 87 y.o. woman whose children wanted to point the finger at the hospital - she had children who had clearly not wanted to scrutinise too closely! You are making us think - Gillian - yet again - thank-you! May compassion rise again in our hearts - not dismissal nor lack of empathy!

Jim KABLE 23 February 2016

Out of sight, out of mind and forgotten. These are the people that brought us into the world, kept us safe and brought us up. Thanks for for reminding us we need to look after our old folk. It will be our turn soon after all.

Steve Hicks 23 February 2016

Another well thought out and poignant article Gillian...and as you point out, not only overt elder abuse, but perhaps well intentioned actions that involve an implicit lack of understanding and respect, or acknowledgement of the person's pride, dignity and wishes, as was the case with Uncle Vangelis

John Whitehead 23 February 2016

A very worrying and pressing problem when the age of the population is tending towards the elderly. There are so many issues and undercurrents as you point out but the most disturbing is that love seems to be missing from the lives of old people.we can only hope that it remains in families and amongst friends where it was nurtured. What to do about abuse is a real quandary. Thank you for the food for thought .

Maggie 24 February 2016

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