Abuse of the elderly - We can no longer say we do not know

Today is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and there is a conference at University College Dublin to mark the occasion. In January, the Irish Examiner disclosed that the existing 26 elder abuse officers reported 927 cases of elder abuse in the second half of 2007.

As part of her doctoral studies Amanda Phelan of UCD’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems interviewed 18 community care nurses on two occasions during a five-month period last year. Each of the nurses admitted encountering at least two cases of abuse involving elderly people. In some instances it took some time to identify that elder abuse was involved.

Although the scandal of elder abuse made national headlines with the exposure of conditions at the Leas Cross nursing home, 88% of the complaints last year related to people living at home.

There was a family relationship with the abuser in 92% of those cases, which poses particular difficulties in tackling the problem.

Family members made only 16% of the complaints last year. This suggests an urgent need for a proactive approach by community care nurses and others in checking on elderly people living at home.

The latest study highlights the difficulties faced by those nurses in exposing elder abuse. Many of the nurses interviewed indicated that they were suspicious of abuse but were reluctant to record the matter without definite proof, as this would become a legal document.

There is an unfortunate perception of older people in a “dependency framework” and often as a burden.

Many of the abused people are prepared to suffer in silence because a carer in the home is responsible for the abuse. Victims fear they might be placed in a nursing home, if they report the abuse. Some of the victims assumed they were in “functional decline”. They did not realise that their ailment could be treated with medicine that would allow them more independence.

Because of a romanticised view of the family, some of the nurses interviewed were reluctant to get involved in the cases of elder abuse in the home, which is where most of the abuse occurs. The study, therefore, highlights the need for mandatory training across the medical profession to recognise elder abuse. This is a largely hidden problem that needs to be brought into the open.

If a community ignores the maltreatment of such vulnerable people, it is not likely to show much concern for anyone in need. The Department of Health and Children recently accepted a tender from the UCD School of Nursing to establish a national centre for the protection of elderly people.

It is hoped that the new centre will be operational before the end of the year. Plans are already afoot to establish a database to “track” cases of elder abuse so that they can be fully investigated. This should be a social imperative of any civilised or compassionate society and the work of today’s conference at UCD is therefore warmly welcomed.

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