On 15th June, countries around the world will acknowledge World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD).   Although the scourge of elder abuse is not new, it was not recognized for many years, and is prevalent in almost every society around the world, South Africa being no exception.  It is a crime and a moral issue as experience has shown that older persons are frequently abused by those whom they should be able to trust the most, such as family members, professionals, caregivers and even to a certain extent, businesses and Government Departments.

No instruments that can accurately record the extent of the abuse exist in our country at present; the information available only reflects reported abuse, not the true picture.  The police do not keep statistics on reported cases of abuse of older persons and elder abuse is largely under-reported for a number of reasons.  It is generally believed that elder abuse occurs in residential or care facilities but there are more older persons being abused in their own homes where it is far more difficult to expose.  As mentioned, the perpetrators are often family such as their children, grandchildren and the older persons are reluctant to speak out against them.  Fear of being subjected to further abuse, fear of being left alone, fear of secondary trauma when their allegations are not taken seriously are some of the reasons for their silence.  Older persons who are physically or mentally frail are sometimes not able to report the abuse themselves and rely on others, such as church or community workers, health professionals, family members to speak out on their behalf.

In the Older Persons Act, (Act No. 13 of 2006), elder abuse is defined as any act (or lack of action) occurring within a relationship of trust, that causes harm or distress to an older person. This legislation aims at protecting older persons both in residential or care facilities and those living in community who form the majority of the older population.  The Act states very clearly that anyone who knows or even suspects that an older person is being abused has a responsibility to report this. For the legislation to be effective in stopping elder abuse it needs to be efficiently implemented and this requires the co-operation of Government Departments, NPOs, communities and of course, the older persons themselves.   The value of educating older persons about their rights is also critical. Many older persons are unaware that the actions of others towards them are defined in the Act as abuse.

Legislative protection aside, the problem is also indicative of a society fraught with ageism and discrimination against the elderly; no amount of legislation can correct this. Protection for the elderly in our society against abuse is the responsibility of each-and-every one of us. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so to it takes village to safeguard its elders.

A change in the ageist attitudes of individuals calls for more guidance and for our leaders to create the necessary moral impetus by whichever means possible to bring about change.

Elder abuse respects no boundaries.  While even very fit and active older persons, those who are wealthy or poor, may become victims of elder abuse, those suffering from physical or mental frailty are  far more vulnerable, especially those suffering from dementia.

There are many forms of elder abuse; physical (includes neglect), mental, emotional, financial, sexual.  Cases of abuse are occasionally highlighted in print or social media such as the way recipients of the SASSA grant have their money taken from them by “loan sharks” or those addicted to drugs or alcohol.   Older persons who are not able to read or understand the content of documents are coerced into signing; this has led to some losing their homes or possessions, opening accounts at clothing stores for unscrupulous grandchildren who are unemployed and unable to pay.  Older persons who are unable to care for themselves are left alone at home, sometimes locked in so that not even a concerned neighbour can access them.  Denying an older person access to medical care or medication necessary for their good health, is a form of neglect.

There is a stigma attached to some of the age-related illnesses such as older persons suffering from dementia being labelled “witches”; some older women have been killed as a result of this labelling.   Causing emotional distress by shouting or belittling an older person is also an offence. Sadly some older persons are sexually abused, even raped.

If you know or suspect an older person is being abused, please contact the Chief Social Worker at the nearest Department of Social Development or report to the Police Station nearest to where you live.   There is a SAPS National Order No.1 which obligates members of the Police to assist an older person that is being abused.

Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher, and Politician, said these words: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Just relying on others such as Government to provide the answer or for poorly funded NGO’s to tackle this problem amounts to us doing nothing. Let’s commemorate the 15th of June by taking the decision to do something and make a difference in alleviating the scourge of elder abuse.

I encourage all South Africans to stand in solidarity with the rest of the world on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day by wearing purple or at least a purple ribbon, to raise awareness in our country. Let us give love and respect to the older citizens of our country to whom we owe so much.

Roedolf Kay

National Coordinator

South African Older Persons Forum