LAST October, as the Government cowered in the corner licking its medical card crisis wounds, the elderly population of Ireland was publicly showered in compliments.
Grandmothers and grandfathers previously thrown on the scrap-heap for being too old and frail to make a difference had inflicted a mortal injury on Brian Lenihan’s first ham-fisted attempt at the budget. As a result, the rest of the country took notice. Maybe we didn’t notice enough.
New figures detailed in the HSE’s Open Your Eyes report show at the same time as the October optimism, elderly people whose voices were not heard continued to be an easy target for abuse — both from within the health service and, worryingly, behind the doors of their own homes.
According to the HSE figures, during the elderly population of Ireland’s medical card protest-induced Indian summer, 1,840 over-65s were being subjected to psychological assaults (26%), neglect (19%), and financial (16%) abuse.
While the rest of the country believed the tide had changed and that elderly people were no longer defenceless, 859 old-age pensioners in the HSE South region alone were being subjected to mistreatment and harassment from family members they were completely dependent on — a figure on a par with the official national level in 2007. The report shows that despite the widely held belief that abuse is more likely in state or private institutions — understandable considering the spectre of Leas Cross and previous state institutional neglect that continues to be our hidden national shame — 83% of abuse cases reported last year involved sons, daughters, and spouses who had taken responsibility for caring for their elderly relative.
Worse still, the HSE accepts the figures are just the tip of the iceberg, with international evidence strongly suggesting between 14,000 and 20,000 elderly people in Ireland were subjected to abuse last year, with as many as 7,000 living in the HSE South region alone. For once, the blame should not be laid at the door of the HSE, which employs an elder abuse officer in the HSE South, Dublin-Mid Leinster, and West regions, and also 27 specialist case workers in local health offices around the country tasked with addressing the issues.
Unfortunately, despite the genuine attempts by the authorities to tackle the issue the problem is still there. Ask consultant geriatrician Professor Des O Neill, who has urged the banking sector to “wake up” to the reality of elderly people being bullied, harassed and abused into allowing relatives to effectively steal their life-savings. Ask Age Action spokesman Eamon Timmins, who has warned repeatedly that the scandal is a reality, and has raised concerns over the level of support in both rural and urban areas for those suffering at the hands of someone they thought cared. Elderly abuse happens, they say. It happens every day.
When the depth of the elderly abuse problem is faced, the autumn success of the medical card protests — and the voices of pensioners who forced an increasingly stubborn Government into an embarrassing climb down — seem a long way away.
Elderly abuse is the other side of the coin for elderly people that the rest of the population rarely gets to see. Maybe, as the HSE report suggests, we should open our eyes to that reality as well.
Those caring for elderly relatives or who work in the health service know the responsibility is far from easy. Despite the love and admiration they may have for the person in the autumn of their years, caring for someone with a catalogue of needs can be frustrating, demanding, tiring. It can wear you down. But regardless of what difficulties emerge, abuse of an elderly person can never be justified.
Inflicting emotional or psychological abuse makes you nothing short of a schoolyard bully.
Inflicting physical or financial abuse makes you a criminal who should be put behind bars.
Inflicting sexual abuse of an elderly person in need of care? That just makes you worse than anything imaginable.
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