Hidden shame

Elder abuse seldom hits the headlines and research in to it is
only just beginning. Linda Dunion reports on the largest survey to
date in this area and reveals a frightening trend: that most abuse
takes place within the family

In comparison to domestic violence or child abuse, the abuse of
older people scarcely registers. Yet research suggests that as many
as one in 11 older people in the UK are mistreated or neglected by
those they trust the most. The cases that do reach the press
usually involve paid carers. The reality is that most abuse takes
place within the family.

Age Concern Scotland has launched a campaign to raise public
awareness about elder abuse – part of a three-year project looking
at the issue. The aim is to heighten awareness among the public,
professionals, service providers, and older people themselves and
to publicise a national helpline run by the UK charity, Action on
Elder Abuse.

Research into elder abuse is hampered by the fact that most of
it goes unrecorded. New research by Action on Elder Abuse based on
calls to their helpline is, to date, the largest UK study of
reported incidents of elder abuse. Because the statistics were
gathered only from those who were sufficiently motivated to call
the helpline, they may not necessarily reflect the true national
trends, but they do help build up the picture.

Women are more likely to be abused than men and the risk of
being abused increases with age. The oldest person referred to in a
helpline call was a woman of 101. The study found that men
accounted for 54.6 per cent of abusers and women 45.4 per cent.
Given that many more women than men are involved in caring for
older people, men would appear to be more likely to abuse than

There is increasing evidence of abuse by women, but more
research is needed into this area. More women than men are unpaid
carers and as such, may be more likely to abuse as a result of
stress or exasperation. Not enough is known about the incidence of
stress-related elder abuse carried out by carers who have reached
the end of their tether, but a small proportion of calls to the
helpline were from carers who feared that they might abuse the
older person. Clearly, support for carers is a key element of any
strategy to help prevent elder abuse.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing statistics to emerge is that
two-thirds of calls concerned abuse within the family by a
relative. Husbands accounted for 17.2 per cent of abusers, wives
for 5.3 per cent, daughters for 26.7 per cent, sons for 35.3 per
cent, daughters-in-law for 7.5 per cent and sons-in-law for 8 per
cent. The problem of older people being abused within the family is
difficult to prove and to tackle as the following case, reported to
Age Concern Scotland, demonstrates.

An 82-year-old woman’s daughter and son-in-law suggested she
sell the family home and move in with them, which she did. One year
later she was admitted to a residential home for a fortnight’s
respite care to have bedsores treated. Within two days, the
son-in-law turned up at the home with all the woman’s belongings in
rubbish bags saying that they would not be taking her back. Staff
in the home discovered that the £80,000 raised from the sale
of the mother’s house had gone but she would not consider taking
legal action against her own daughter, who had no further contact
with her.

Older people also suffer sexual abuse although it accounts for
less than 2 per cent of reported cases. But there are fears that
some individuals may be drawn into the care sector because of
opportunities that exist to sexually abuse older people. One case
which came to light suggests that this may be happening. Grace (not
her real name), aged 82, began to attend a day centre which she
appeared to enjoy. Within a few weeks, however, she refused to go
back and she finally broke down and confided to her home carer that
a male care worker had molested her when helping her to the toilet.
The allegation was investigated by the day centre manager. The
alleged abuser denied the charge until a second victim revealed
that she had been the victim of similar assaults. Neither victim
wanted to involve the police.

Two key pieces of legislation in the Scottish parliament will go
some way to improving both safeguards and penalties. The Adults
with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 introduces a range of measures
designed to protect the interests of people who cannot make
decisions for themselves in relation to their welfare and finances.
It is due to be phased in over the coming months. The Regulation of
Care (Scotland) Act 2001 will set up two new bodies to oversee care
services and care staff, and for the first time all care workers
will have to be registered.

Elder abuse is emerging as a key social issue for the 21st
century. For too long it has been ignored or dismissed. Just as
abused children have in the past been ridiculed or branded liars
for trying to speak out, so too have older people. It is time to
deal with this problem so that we can all grow old without

Linda Dunion is assistant director of Age Concern

Action on Elder Abuse helpline: 0808 808

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