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June 15 was Corpus Christi, another pointless, superfluous holiday. It was almost exactly one week since an elderly gentleman, Mr. Christopher Phillip, was found dead on the grass in front of the Port-of-Spain General Hospital’s Accident & Emergency department. It also happened to be World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
Elder abuse? Yes, elder abuse, not child abuse or wife abuse, which is bad enough, but elder abuse. A problem, now, in the world and in T&T.
In the 70s about 30,000 babies used to be born every year. This has gradually fallen to the point where, in the last ten years only about 18,000 babies are born annually, a boon to the Ministry of Education which suddenly found that there were enough places in schools. This enabled the government of the day to promise “a place for every child in school,” as if they had planned it that way. Unfortunately, it also meant that no more schools could be built, less chance to steal money, so eyes turned to hospitals, with or without functioning MRIs.
Coming down from the States in the 70s, one wondered where all the old people were. The place was full of children. Forty per cent of the population. Not any more. It’s down to 20 per cent. Between 1960 and 1990 the proportion of the population aged over 60 had remained almost steady at around 5 per cent. But by 2000, it had reached 10 per cent and today it is estimated to be 12 per cent. One in ten Trinis is old! Children down, elderly up! There are bound to be consequences to having so many old people.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that abuse to old people is common and rising.
There is little serious data available on this. In February, Lancet published the first worldwide survey of elder abuse done in 28 countries from every continent. Studies included five lower-middle-income countries, 13 upper-middle-income countries and 34 high-income countries.
Results were staggering, especially when we consider that many cases of abuse go unreported. Elder abuse is common.
The combined prevalence for overall abuse in the past year was 15·7 per cent, i.e. worldwide, one in every six old people was being abused. Interestingly, there was no gender difference in prevalence estimates, old men or old women, is the same, blows!
Psychological blows was the most common, 11.6 per cent. That includes name calling, scaring, embarrassing, destroying property or not letting the elder see friends and family. Financial abuse or illegally misusing an older person’s money, property or assets, was second, 6-8 per cent.
Ordinary neglect, failure to meet an older person’s basic needs, food, housing, clothing, and medical care, was at 4·2 per cent. Physical abuse, hitting, kicking, pushing, slapping, burning or another show of force, was “only” 2·6 per cent and sexual abuse 0.9 per cent. However, these last are certainly being under reported since they are likely to take place in scenarios where people are completely dependent on their abusers and sexual abuse seems to be especially common in older, immobile women living with a male relative suffering from addiction or mental illness.
There are two little anecdotes of recent vintage that express vividly the bias that the elderly and indeed the disabled face. One comes from London where it is being said that the Kensington Council placed the elderly and disabled on the higher floors of the 24-story Grenfell Tower that recently burnt down. Obviously common sense is not lacking only in T&T where in 2014, the Housing Development Corporation placed a paralysed 14-year-old and his mother on the seventh floor of one of their buildings. The mother claimed it was a bit difficult for her to take him down from the building for medical appointments whenever the building’s elevator was out of order.
We all know about the psychological, physical and sexual abuse so prevalent in our society today, so its presence in the elderly is not unexpected. What is fascinating is financial abuse, the most common form of elderly abuse in T&T, according to the Division of Ageing at the Ministry of Health. But of course, the elderly have money or land or belongings. Some might be confused and dependent on others for living. So it should come as no surprise that there are people who prey on them financially.
Age Caribbean (www.agecaribbean.com), a consultancy firm in T&T which offers ageing policy services and public education courses, has just put out some information on the local situation: abusers can be family members of strangers. In one USA report, 49 per cent of financial abusers were family members and this seems to be the more in T&T. Other culprits are former colleagues, corrupt organisations, untrustworthy friends, con artists or strangers online.
Financial abusers do not only want money. Many target older persons in order to take their personal valuable, real estate property or vehicles, which they can then rent, sell or keep for themselves.
Age Caribbean goes on to say that since women live longer than men they are more likely to be targeted and come to depend on someone else to manage their finances, which can lead to vulnerability.
They recommend that the elderly should decide early on whom to trust in case someone is needed to manage the finances and to be aware that sometimes good people do bad things for financial gain.
Age Caribbean takes a multi-disciplinary approach to ageing policy, because getting older is complex and the challenges of an ageing society cannot be solved by just one person. Unfortunately, ultimately people underestimate the value and complexity of ageing policy because they undervalue ‘old people’. But we all going to get there some day.