World Elder Abuse Awareness Day was commemorated on Tuesday. This international day falls one week short of a warning by Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech that financial exploitation of elderly people is on the rise. The magistrate’s comment was made in the context of a conviction of misappropriation and money laundering by a lady who exploited the vulnerability of her elderly neighbour.

While local news is definitely not lacking stories of abuse on older adults, most episodes of abuse are rarely reported and rarely newsworthy. Just like other forms of abuse, elder abuse is usually insidious and the perpetrators are often the persons closest to the victim.

For example, an older person who is happily, and safely, coping at home may be unduly pressured into entering a care home. Soon after, rest assured, their assets will be conveniently sold at the financial gain of others. While less conspicuous than physical abuse, financial exploitation may be just as malignant.

Elder abuse is defined as the intentional or negligent acts by a caregiver, or trusted individual, that causes harm to an older person. It may be a single or a repeated act. Abuse can take many forms but, notably, abandonment, physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse and exploitation as well as emotional or psychological abuse.

Sadly, those who are most susceptible, such as persons with dementia, are often those who are least able to speak out against this abuse.

It is also under-reported as the victims often depends upon the perpetrator for their care.

Abuse can take place in the person’s own home but just as well in a hospital or care home. Mental health issues, social isolation and poor physical health, all increase the likelihood of suffering from elder abuse.

Caregiver burnout is another recognised risk factor. A person may be well-intentioned and devote their time to caring for an elderly person. However, as occasionally happens with progressive illness, if the care and attention required become overwhelming for the caregiver, the situation can sometimes spiral into abuse, be it verbal insults, slaps across the face or psychological threats.

Let us fight for a just society in which vulnerable persons are protected with ardour- Julia Tua

So, what can we do to help?  Firstly, we can build public awareness by talking about the issue and challenging ageism and social injustices.

Secondly, we can be guardians in our community: keep in contact with your older relatives and be on the lookout for elder abuse. Recognising indicators of abuse, for example, unexplained injuries or unsanitary living conditions, is the first step towards helping a victim.

Caregivers who are feeling overwhelmed should seek help from family and friends or contact the department of elderly services for support.

Older adults who are at risk of isolation should visit their family doctor and discuss services available from the department of the elderly. Such services include activity centres, night shelter, meals on wheels, telecare+, respite and many others.

Our policymakers should strive to protect this vulnerable group of society by allocating appropriate resources to this sector. Admittedly, while care homes are consistently on the rise, with our ageing population there is still an ever-increasing demand for broader community services.

For example, the current ‘Carer at Home Scheme’ is still quite limited. It requires the applicant to first finance the carer themselves before being eligible to apply for a partial refund. While encouraging, it still leaves many unable to afford a carer at home.Policymakers should also ensure the appropriate training for staff who work in care homes.

Let us fight for a just society in which vulnerable persons are protected with ardour.

Reporting abuse: In the community: Social Work Unit, Active Ageing: Tel: 153; CommCare Unit: Tel:  2595 2595; In institutional settings: Immediate supervisor and/or head of home; Police Domestic Violence Unit: Tel: 2122 4001 / 2294 2160.

Julia Tua, general secretary, Geriatric Medicine Society of Malta

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