With a bit of luck and good management we all might live a long life, even if as a medical miracle, so it would be beneficial for all of us to mind how we treat elders. One day we will be one of them.
Those in their seventies and eighties (or older) – the silent generation – have experienced history: depressions, recessions, World War II, the threat of nuclear war and Vietnam are part of their living memory, or what’s left of it in the frontal lobe.
Resilience has been challenged as they adapt to changes in values, technology and materialism, from a base of thrift. They miss manners, respect, behavioural standards, empathy, compassion, understanding and kindness.
Global working families may mean they are remote from children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Even in proximity, disconnectedness may be a function of the busyness of families combined with capture by devices intended to enhance communications.
Expectations held by the silent generation are modest, born of their history and experience: usually a measure of attention, respect and kindness is all that is required by this resilient lot.
We are not alone
Society has yet to adjust to address the needs of elders at every level. The disjunction leaves many of them vulnerable to many forms of abuse: physical, emotional, sexual, financial, exploitation, neglect, even indifference. As the condition of elders declines, it seems difficult for younger people enculturated to self-absorption to treat elders with dignity and respect, even kindness and affection (the latter might be a stretch).
According to the UN, around one in six older people experience some form of abuse that can lead to physical injuries and long term psychological consequences. Much goes unreported. Estimates of global population indicate that people above the age of 60 will exceed the number of younger people by 2050, rising from 900 million in 2015 to about 2 billion. Current elder abuse issues are likely to increase in line with demographic changes. How well we adapt to care of our elderly will become an indication of our maturity as a person, family and society.
Regulate or resolve
Elder abuse is known to be significantly under-reported, hence the theme “Lifting up Voices” for this year’s World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It is so easy to write off the importance, knowledge, wisdom and stories of our elders merely because of their accumulated years and diminishments, especially when it takes time to listen – time that others may not have, or be prepared to give. Much can be lost.
Higher incidence of abuse is reported against elders in residential care, as the current Royal Commission in Australia is finding out. Many of the findings will lead to increased monitoring of treatment and regulation to raise standards of care. All this will cost money that will be shuffled down the pile of priorities, relying for resolution on the dedication of carers and family members.
Abuse of elders in family and the community is likely to be under-reported, especially when the perpetrators are family members. Embarrassment, denial, shame and powerlessness become overwhelming.
In families, abuse takes many forms, or combinations that cannot necessarily be regulated, yet need to be resolved. To name a few along the spectrum:
- Financial – coercing elders to hand over money and assets, even eviction, leaving the aged parent bereft, likely to be followed by indifference, neglect or threats of withholding grandchildren
- Psychological – constant berating, humiliation, bullying and manipulation
- Physical – actual or threatened physical menace to assert domination
- Sexual – taking advantage of relative powerlessness
- Weaponising of grandchildren – preventing access to grandchildren deprives all parties of love, knowledge wisdom and affirmation of the worth of life
- Neglect, indifference, isolation – demonstrating laziness, inconsideration and ingratitude for the gift of life and the opportunities current generations enjoy that were not possible for the olds they now abandon. Loneliness has become a major issue for elders, which, for some lends to depression and suicidal tendencies.
Some regulation may be necessary, though resolution is more likely to achieve better outcomes by breathing fresh life into proven traditional Christian principles that seem to have dissipated along with the practice of religion.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’d be aware that rugby player Israel Folau has found himself in a lot of bother and out of a $4 million contract for quoting his Christian tenets on social media. So I am sticking my neck out by mentioning a couple myself:
- Honour your father and your mother – one of the ten commandments that have guided western civilization, invoking respect for elders, along with the concomitant obligation that parents also honour their children;
- Love one another as I have loved you – evoking empathy, kindness, compassion and love;
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – a call to treat elders how you would like to be treated when you are old;
- Love thy neighbour as thyself – setting the gold standard for behaviour towards others and towards care of self.
Today’s elders were raised on Christian principles and honoured them, if imperfectly, over a lifetime of service, generosity and respect. They become confounded and dismayed with the deterioration of values that parallels their own decline. They wonder what the world is coming to, what their grandchildren will have to contend with and what they can do about it.
What elders can do
Firstly, they can confine concerns to caring for themselves. Having despatched their duties over a lifetime, they can take a cue from Jesus or Jordan Peterson and care for themselves first. Following the Maturity Model outlined in my book Becoming, they are responsible only for themselves at the later stage of life. Blessings of good will can be projected to all others, while focusing on their own lives.
Be cheerful and positive as possible in all communications. State your case simply and listen carefully. As far as possible remain independent and in charge of your own life. Be mindful, though not responsible, for the quandary that many adult children confront as they are compelled to deal with the multiple crises presenting in midlife. How midlifers deal with the crises will largely determine how generative (or not) their own later years will be. In this era of corporate social responsibility, elder abuse may not look good on a CV.
Governments recognise the commonality of problems and provide a range of services as outlined at the bottom of this blog to help alleviate concerns. Elders under pressure need to know that their problems are recognized and help is available.
The five in six
While the emphasis of this blog has been on abuse experienced by the one in six elders (common enough), there are another five in six who, thankfully, are exemplars of how things could or should be for elderly. Families including elders in events, celebrating their lives, sharing with grandchildren, phoning and visiting occasionally to let you know they care, bringing them along to grandchildren’s’ sporting events and performances, looking out for them with household assistance and meals where needed. None of these is spectacular or challenging – just thoughtful and considerate.
In doing so, benefits accrue both ways: a family can be enriched by the wisdom of elders and the elders themselves are affirmed in the value of their life, even in decline.
How to get help
- In an emergency phone the police on Triple Zero (000)
- Call the Elder Abuse Helpline (9am–5pm, Monday to Friday) for free and confidential advice for anyone experiencing elder abuse or who suspects someone they know may be experiencing elder abuse.
Phone: 1300 651 192 (Queensland only) or (07) 3867 2525 (rest of Australia).
- Legal support for seniors
- Office of the Public Guardian looks after the interests of adults with impaired capacity
- Other support services for seniors.