Elder abuse thrives on silence



Images of old age in promotions are usually taken in soft focus and set in autumn. They depict smiling, animated and well-dressed couples who are clearly delighted with the financial services, insurance, or other commodities with which they have been blessed.

World Elder Abuse Awareness DayThe image is real. We all know elderly people who are healthy, active, care for themselves and are blessed with loving families.

For many of us, too, our grannies have been central in our lives: a source of care and unfaltering affection, they connect us with a world beyond our nuclear family.

But the image represents only part of the reality of old age. Many elderly people are ill, have lost their partners, live alone with little connection to their families, suffer from incipient dementia, and are dependent on others for the daily business of living. If they appear at all in the media, it is usually in bad news stories. They are seen as people different from us.

A significant minority of older people, too, suffer from abuse. They have a special day dedicated to them: World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, celebrated on 15 June. Its title suggests that most people are unaware of the reality of abuse and of its extent.

The limited studies conducted on elder abuse suggest that between one and five percent of elderly people throughout the world are abused.

The abuse is often physical, sometimes sexual, and also financial. Although the more publicised instances are of abuse by strangers and carers, family members are responsible for much of it. As has been the case with all domestic violence, much goes unreported. The isolation and shame of the victims contribute to the silence.

Financial abuse is particularly insidious. Anyone who has been associated with people through their illness and deaths sees how death brings out the best and worst in families. Sometimes family members care generously for their sick parents and are scrupulous in ensuring that their wishes for the distribution of their wealth are faithfully carried out. Death brings the family closer together.


"When close relatives die a childhood sense of entitlement and doubt about being loved can return and are expressed in greed."


But sometimes the response to elderly relatives is dominated by greed. People who have shut their homeless father out of their lives make contact in their last illness to ensure that they will inherit any goods he leaves. Family members squabble over the details and execution of the will. Of course, it would be wrong to judge peopls's character by these responses. When close relatives die a childhood sense of entitlement and doubt about being loved can return and are expressed in greed.

The greed that asserts itself at times of death can also dominate people's relationship to their living parents. They will dissuade them from spending money on themselves. They will offer to take over their parent's financial affairs and appropriate their money for themselves. Some will manipulate or bully their parents to finance their own enterprises, and get them to sign off on financial obligations they do not understand.

The stories of abuse are as broad as they are distressing. But distasteful though they are they form another facet of the way ageing is experienced in society. As with other forms of domestic abuse, financial abuse is protected and allowed to flourish most effectively by silence. To be aware of it and to keep it before our eyes is the first step in preventing it.

These stories are also relevant to the discussion of legalising euthanasia. I am opposed to this on ethical grounds, but I acknowledge that my position is not shared by many Australians. So a considered judgement of its legalisation must take account of many arguments and human situations. Its proponents usually offer images, notably of an ageing person, fully in possession of her mind and supported by her family, beset by a painful illness and close to death, who longs for euthanasia to be legally available. That image, of course also is real, one facet of the experience of ageing.

A considered judgment about legalising it must not attend only to images and stories of people making a clearly free and unpressured decision to do so and of relatives who have only their relatives' best interests at heart. It must also take into account the stories of vulnerable and isolated people whose relatives want access to their wealth and who see in their parent's painless death an opportunity. It must reckon with the vulnerability to emotional manipulation of people who do not want to be a trouble to others and to the misrepresentation of their desires by relatives with a financial interest.

People who freely want to end their lives and people beset by others who want their lives ended are minorities in society. But the libertarian argument that anyone who wishes should be able legally to have access to euthanasia needs to grapple with the probability that in some cases the wish will not be their own.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day



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Existing comments

Right on target on elder abuse. Financial manipulation by various strategies is one of the lowest things you can do to an ageing, dependent person. The (sadly) associated matter of euthanasia is something I think merits a separate article by you.

Edward Fido | 14 June 2016  

My sister and I never regretted listening to our Aunt and taking her away from a nursing home where she was not happy. On the 1000kilometre drive north she opened up and told us of threats made by a staff member. She was a tough cookie who never cried until put in that nursing home. We loved her toughness and salty tongue but they did not. Every family member must listen to their oldies complaints and fight for them. Their minds may get a bit disordered but their capacity to feel remains. Need for affection and dignity same as all of us.

Pamela | 16 June 2016  

After my botched bowel cancer op in public hospital, with lethal septicemia spreading, it was unilaterally decided to allow me to die within 2 days.[passive euthanasia 666. By accident I found out[after sudden influx of tearful visitors] and urged pumping higher antibiotics and here I am 7years later with mere hemiplegic stroke. Perish the thought of legalising Euthanasia-already occuring!! At 72, bedridden, my rehab is in Hilton of nursing homes; and in 40 years of priesthood I have seen many.Oh yes I have been visited by golddiggers[mere occupational hazard dismissed!]

Father John George | 16 June 2016  

So well said. Relatives can be selfish and indeed wicked, albeit I`m sure a small minority. I remember well an elderly lady with terminal and painful (though well controlled) disease who was pressured by family to go home so that they could steal and sell/use her narcotics!

Eugene | 16 June 2016  

My mother lives a life dedicated to others; she is the salt of the earth.We, who know her, have had the privilege of being truly loved. Her faith has enabled her to face many challenges;she cared for her loving husband and seven children, the youngest with Downes Syndrome lives with her today,and countless other children, friends.She cared for my father at home after a serious stroke and this was a wonderful opportunity for me to be of assistance to both of them. I have lasting love from this time..and I am sure my father's death was easier for me because of this time.Even today at 81 she is out on cold evenings with her friends, providing a gourmet meal for local homeless "friends". I am grateful that I can be her support as I live close by, and together she and my sister continue to live generous lives. I am so fortunate to share my mother's life, faith, courage and wisdom,and she is not ever a burden. She is a wellspring, as our frail and elderly all are. She deserves the highest respect, and only requires the simple things to be happy. Time is truly precious.

Catherine | 16 June 2016  

The abuse or misuse of legalised provision for "voluntary" euthanasia is a very real threat: one I have experienced at first hand, without having legal recourse to protect the victim against those she had entrusted with Sole Guardianship and Enduring Power of Attorney. Except that in this case it wasn't legal, but those delivering the coup de grace had obviously had some practice at it. My appeal to the government agency handling health complaints - which was disbanded by a subsequent state government - handed my complaint to the CEO of the hospital responsible, who declined to state the cause of my mother's death. In the interim, I had received a threatening phone call from a police officer in the country town where this occurred, accusing me of "payback" tactics against the person who had arranged the termination of a life. Although independent and expert medical opinion strongly supported the view that a life had been ended prematurely and unnecessarily, as an individual I was powerless to intervene against the combined forces of authorities who wished to cover up what appears to be a fairly ubiquitous and tacitly accepted practice. So what will the authorities in this matter actually be authorising?

Jena Woodhouse | 16 June 2016  

Right on target Andrew, I have worked as a nurse/carer in the Aged Care arena for over 40 years and all of your points are right on the money. The array and extent of elder financial abuse I have witnessed (and been helpless to stop) is amazing. Your important point of emotional regression to earlier childhood and juvenile periods (sense of entitlement etc) I have experienced in my own family and sadly I probably have been guilty of it myself at times. Your article conveys hope though ...for in acknowledging the anomalies and faults in our approaches it opens the way to a more enlightened ,spiritual and loving approach.......thanks again for your observations.

Philip Thomad | 16 June 2016  

Thank you for bringing this issue to the fore, especially at a time when funding seems to go down regularly! As an eighty year old Sister is St. Joseph Ph I feel we are so privileged in the care we receive and are able to share with us.

Margaret Lamb | 16 June 2016  

The movie and television series M*A*S*H is identifiable by the music of Johnny Mandel, the throb of chopper engines, the whistle in the wind of rotor blades and the song, "Suicide is Painless" written by Michael, the 14 year old son of Robert Altman who produced the movie. Suicide is indeed painless in its relief of the unbearable emotional pain that drives someone to take his own life. Homicide through euthanasia, however, relieves the pain of others in the main, rather than that of the victim. That I what I found after 45 years of caring for the desperately ill.

john frawley | 16 June 2016  

Andrew, elder abuse is also experienced by some older religious, I regret to say. With no family support, sometimes with younger religious responsible for their care who lack sensitivity and who may not know or care what their elders want or need but have the power to decide what happens to them. They can get their way by demanding 'obedience'. Aged care facilities where older religious live should be vigilant that this hidden bullying is not experienced by their residents. Who will fight that their rights as citizens are being respected?

Mary Brown | 16 June 2016  

I am in full agreement that legal euthanasia could be used unethically by greedy and immoral people, and although in some rare instances it may be good for a person, on the whole it is too dangerous and could easily be misused.

Maria Prestinenzi | 16 June 2016  

Great Article Andrew. Please keep writing about this issue, as our community elders need a voice. Also, excellent reflection of the central issue in the euthanasia debate in your last paragraph. Liz (a lawyer)

Elizabeth O'Connor | 12 July 2016  

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