Though Malta should not become a nanny state, it badly needed a robust system to safeguard elderly people from neglect and abuse, experts told the Times of Malta.

They were reacting to comments by Active Ageing Parliamentary Secretary Justyne Caruana who said a new law on vulnerable adults could see the removal of people’s succession rights in proven cases of abuse and neglect. She has yet to clarify what will constitute abuse and neglect and how the law will eventually work.

Maria Camilleri, a social worker with extensive experience among elderly abuse victims, said the proposal sounded like the system of public guardianship employed in various countries such as the UK and Canada.

“If what the government is talking about is the act of taking the money a neglected elderly person might have in his will and using it to provide him with a 24-hour carer, then I’m all for it,” Ms Camilleri said. “This would help ease the burden on such places as Mater Dei and Karin Grech hospitals.”

She thinks certain elderly people should be placed under a care order, as with children, and that the government should then appoint people to take decisions on their behalf.

The law already provided certain mechanisms but these were very rarely enforced, Ms Camilleri added.

She recounted cases she encountered of elderly people living in squalor, neglected by their children, and of others who were sent to St Vincent de Paul when they could have remained within the community with a little help.

“I will never forget one elderly woman who I found living in a dilapidated house, sitting in faeces, with her hair in one tangled, filthy mess. She lived with her unemployed son, who lived off her pension and barely allowed access to her. He would not even let me move her to St Vincent de Paul.”

We need to be careful as to what amounts to neglect. Life is not black and white and the majority of people do their best. The court should take such decisions

Psychiatrist David Mamo, founding member of the Foundation of Active Ageing, described Dr Caruana’s statement as “draconian” and warned against the government becoming a nanny state.

“We need to be careful as to what amounts to neglect. Life is not black and white and the majority of people do their best. The court should take such decisions.”

He stressed the need for a robust system to safeguard elderly people saying the mechanisms in place were riddled with loopholes.

Malta had a law allowing interdiction which, Prof. Mamo continued, was cumbersome and expensive to enforce. Malta also had a guardianship law which, however, required a family member or another person to willingly submit himself as guardian.

Though powers of attorney or letters of authorisation were limited in scope, guardianship imposed on the guardian a number of obligations at law which were significant for peace of mind.

“As doctors, we sometimes realise that a person is unable to take decisions for himself. Having a public guardianship system in place would facilitate the professional’s work for the patient’s good. It also facilitates the elderly person’s right to contest any decisions made.”

Social gerontology professor Joseph Troisi supported the government’s proposal on removing succession rights, citing it as one way to tackle the problem of elderly abuse.

“It is high time we realised we have a problem. Values are changing. It all boils down to reciprocity: you were dependent on your parents when you were little and now they are dependent on you.

“Abroad, elderly homes are there to help working children visit their parents. Here, these places are becoming dumping grounds where elderly people are cared for by the government and that’s it. Some older people long for their children to visit them and they never do.”

Care came in many forms: financial caring and social caring, by visiting or phoning once a week. “Ultimately, if I don’t care for my parents, why should I care for their money?”

Victim Support Malta director Roberta Lepre said that, at face value, the government’s proposal seemed to adopt a simplistic approach to a problem that was very complex in its nature.

Further social services offering respite or support to informal carers were required to alleviate the stress they encountered and thus potentially reduce ensuing abuse.

Also, additional resources to strengthen current services were required to be able to reach out to more vulnerable people.

“Last but not least, the government needs to provide support services to victims as it is now legally obliged to do in accordance with the Victims of Crime Act, which, so far, has only created rights on paper which have not resulted in any improvements in practice,” Dr Lepre said.

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