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IN THE CANDID CORNER: Tackling elder abuse

Matthew Farley

IN THE CANDID CORNER: Tackling elder abuse

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Most elderly people value autonomy above personal safety and comfort, and would rather have inadequate care with families than the best of institutional care. – Anne Sclater
The recent debate about the abandonment of the elderly in Barbados is quite worrisome.
Given the remarks made by a number of parliamentarians, the situation seems quite grave.
According to the World Health Organization, elder abuse can be defined as “a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person”.
Elder abuse can take various forms such as physical, psychological or emotional, sexual and financial abuse. It can also be the result of intentional or unintentional neglect.
In many parts of the world elder abuse occurs with little recognition or response. Until recently, this serious social problem was hidden from the public view and considered a private matter. Even today, elder abuse continues to be taboo, mostly underestimated and ignored by societies across the world. Evidence is accumulating, however, to indicate that elder abuse is an important public health and societal problem.
This problem exists in both developing and developed countries, yet is typically under-reported globally. Prevalence rates or estimates exist only in selected developed countries – ranging from one per cent to ten per cent. Although the extent of elder mistreatment is unknown, its social and moral significance is obvious. As such, it demands a global multifaceted response, one which focuses on protecting the rights of older people.
The abuse of older people by family members dates back to ancient times. Until the advent of initiatives to address child abuse and domestic violence in the last quarter of the 20th century, it remained a private matter. Initially seen as a social welfare issue and subsequently a problem of ageing, abuse of the elderly, like other forms of family violence, has developed into a public health and criminal justice concern (World Report On Violence And Health).
This issue has touched me in a very personal way.
I was raised by my grandparents because my parents went to Britain in the early 1960s as part of the exodus of West Indians to the “Mother Country”.
I recall when I could not play music too loud in the house because it affected my grandfather. I remember that when my grandfather died, [his death] literally left my grandmother in a trance for the rest of her life. They had such a strong relationship that the passing of one affected the other in a devastating way. I have fond memories of “Mama” and “Papa”, as we called them.
It is for this reason that I could not conceive of leaving elderly relatives at the Accident &?Emergency Department of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) and not returning for them. It is unthinkable that in a country which boasts of high education, and wants to be considered world-class by 2025, that the segment of our population on whose shoulders this country was built can now be abandoned at will, and with impunity.
Isn’t it ironic that a country like Barbados, which can boldly boast of having the second oldest man alive, can have that record scarred by the report that more and more Barbadians are abandoning their elderly at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital?
A number of organizations have been formed worldwide and a number of declarations made to address the vexed question of elder abuse. There is HelpAge International and the International Network For The Prevention Of Elder Abuse, to name a few. As far as declarations go, in 2002 there was the Toronto Declaration On The Prevention of Elder Abuse.
In 2005, the acting manager of the Geriatric Hospital on Beckles Road, St Michael, Mrs Joanell Oxley-Worrell, and the Garrison Secondary School conceptualized GenLink for the purpose of promoting positive attitudes among the youth for the elderly.
With the motto Linking The Generations, this initiative brings students face to face with the elderly.
It has two main components. In the first instance, hospital personnel give demonstrations and lectures on issues pertaining to ageing and expose the students to career opportunities in the field of gerontology. Secondly, as long as there are no health issues, students visit the hospital to plait and comb the hair of the elderly, read to them and listen to their stories as well as entertain them.
GenLink started as an initiative between Garrison Secondary and the Geriatric Hospital but it has since been extended to other primary and secondary schools.
Elder abuse remains a scar on the demographic landscape of Barbados. All right-thinking Barbadians must condemn this practice and extend a helping hand and a caring attitude not only to the elderly within their own family, but to all elderly people, whom we must treat as if they were our own.
If we bring about a change in the attitude of the youth toward the elderly, it will certainly redound to the economic benefit of the country. We owe it to our future.