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Are we respecting our elders?

  • 26 November 2020
This past weekend, I visited my grandparents in their residential aged care home. As usual, it was both lovely and utterly heartbreaking. Lovely, because I feel so lucky to be able to spend time with them, that they are still alive, their home is accepting visitors, and they still remember who I am. But, also, heartbreaking, because aging is tough, and living in residential aged care is tougher still, and this year, well, this year has made it all so much harder.

When I arrived, I asked my grandma how she was. ‘Okay, darling,’ she replied, her eyes welling up with tears. This woman, who cared for me almost every holiday of my childhood, is the most stoic person I know. It is disorienting to see her cry — and profoundly confronting, particularly because my grandparents are living in an objectively excellent home, where the staff are kind, the food is decent and the gardens (as Grandpa keeps commenting) are ‘simply magnificent’. And we know just how much worse it could be.

How do we know? Well, because decades of reports, inquiries, media revelations, and now a Royal Commission have compiled rafts of evidence about the poor treatment of older persons in Australia, both in aged care and at home. And still so little action has been taken to address the issue. Instead, we have an aged care system that is poorly regulated and are only now seeing the beginnings of a tentative national plan to directly address elder abuse.

Why has this issue been allowed to fester for so long?

Some would argue that the major barrier to reform is that elder abuse (including psychological, emotional, physical and financial abuse and neglect) is such a complex issue. And, this is partly true. Addressing elder abuse will require a wide range of regulatory reforms around guardianship, enduring powers of attorney, banking, wills, social security, healthcare, criminal justice responses, and, of course, residential aged care.

However, one simple shift is all that is required to inform and coordinate this process — we need to start respecting the fundamental human rights of older people. From here, everything else will flow. As Professor Andrew Byrnes has recently commented, adopting an ‘explicit and comprehensive human rights framework… is not only the proper ethical approach but… it would [also] resonate with the values and expectations of the broad Australian community.’

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