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Elder Abuse              August 2004   

ELDER ABUSE – it could be happening to your relative (or, in time, to you) 

by Helen Franks  

What is Elder Abuse? 

Many years ago, when I was visiting an elderly aunt in hospital, the woman in the bed next door started calling out to the nurses.  She wanted to get to the toilet, but couldn’t do so unaided.  I watched in amazement as the nursing staff sat in a corner of the ward, ignoring her, gossiping and watching television.

Her cries persisted, so after a few more moments, I approached the staff and asked for their help.

The senior sister shrugged her shoulders and told me by way of explanation, ‘She’s always saying that’ . By the time someone did respond, the woman had wet herself and was very distressed.

I didn’t know what to call it then, but now we have a name for it:  Elder Abuse. 

The charity Action on Elder Abuse defines the behaviour 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’

This harm or distress can be physical, psychological, sexual, financial  (the latter being illegal or unauthorised use of a person’s property, money, etc).  It can be neglect, inappropriate delivery of medication, and can occur in an individual’s home, in a carer’s home, day  centre, residential home, nursing home or hospital.

And one of the terrible aspects is that the victims may not be able or willing to inform anyone.  (When I said to my aunt that  I would complain about the incident above, she asked me not to, for fear of being discriminated against.)*

How prevalent is Elder Abuse?

Shockingly, no one knows.  A UK survey from 1992 showed that up to 5% of older people in the community suffered verbal abuse and 2% were victims of physical or financial abuse.  No studies exist in the UK for abuse in care homes or other care settings.

No wonder the charity Help the Aged calls it ‘the hidden yet widespread scourge’. 

What is the Government doing?

The Government recently issued its response to the Health Select Committee’s report on Elder Abuse, with Health Minister Stephen Ladyman saying:

‘We share the Committee’s concerns for vulnerable adults and welcome the report on Elder Abuse as a useful means of raising both professional and public interest in the protection of vulnerable adults…. and we are determined to continue to do our utmost to protect vulnerable citizens by ensuring that there is no hiding place in the care system for those who abuse.’

 Last month saw the introduction of the Protection of Vulnerable Adults (POVA) scheme which will ban known abusers from working with vulnerable adults.

What is the Protection of Vulnerable Adults (POVA) scheme?

 POVA is the latest in a number of measures introduced by the Government to increase the protection of vulnerable adults which include:

  •      Regulations and inspections of care services and care professionals have been tightened and will be further strengthened by the newly created Commission for Social Care Inspection.

  •      National Minimum Standards have been introduced so that vulnerable adults and their families know what levels of care to expect.

  •      ‘No Secrets’, a framework for councils and partner agencies to develop local multi-agency codes of practice for preventing and tackling the abuse of vulnerable people, has been widely implemented.

  •      431,000 given to Action on Elder Abuse to explore the feasibility of a national recording system for the incidence of adult abuse.

Is this enough?

Help the Aged is disappointed by the Government's response.  It says, 'The Government has failed to recognise that elder abuse can happen to any person anywhere, most commonly in their own home. It is not a crime that only affects vulnerable adults who are receiving care services. The abuse of older people remains hidden, and many are too afraid or embarrassed to speak out. Older people should have a right to independent advocacy to ensure that there is somebody to help them to speak up for their rights.’


Help the Aged

Action on Elder Abuse                  

confidential helpline 080 8808 8141  mon-fri 10am-4.30 pm

*I felt bad about going against her will, but wrote to the hospital secretary appealing for total confidentiality. There was, in time, a tribunal, and the ward was temporarily closed.  Senior staff involved took early retirement. 



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