By Vanessa Papas: What would drive someone to attack their 92-year-old maternal grandmother and then eat parts of her body? Or motivate someone to repeatedly rape and beat a 91-year-old to death? Abuse of the elderly behind closed doors is rife in South Africa but private households are not the only place abuse occurs.
Footage of the brutal assault of an 84-year-old woman by a nurse in an Old Age home in East London left people shocked. The nurse used her open hands, fists and elbows to beat the pensioner before kicking her and pulling her hair, leaving massive bruises across her body. Another old age home in the Western Cape was also investigated for alleged abuse of the elderly, after allegations ranged from deaths due to poor treatment and human rights violations were brought to light. In Gauteng, an old age facility was accused of ill-treating residents and misusing funds it received from the Department of Social Development. In one alleged incident an elderly resident was forced to sleep on the floor.
The South African Nursing Council deregistered two nurses in connection with the neglect and abuse of 85-year-old Agnes de Kock at a Cape Town old age home. Agnes died at the facility seven years ago. A doctor’s report has revealed she died from septic bedsores and starvation.
It’s heart-breaking that so many of our elderly citizens, many of whom devoted their lives to raising their families and serving diligently in various sectors of society, are tossed aside, violated and left to suffer. From retirement villages, to nursing homes, to residential communities and townships, South Africa is faced with the issue of thousands of senior citizens who are neglected and abused daily.
15 June is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It’s a day that puts the abuse of the elderly into perspective, as well as an opportunity to celebrate the huge contribution older people make to families and communities around the world. Highlighting the harrowing stats, did you know that one in six older people have experienced some form of abuse in the past year? Or that rates of abuse are higher for older people living in institutions than in the community? Until recently, this serious social problem was hidden from the public view and considered mostly a private matter. Even today, elder abuse continues to be a taboo, mostly underestimated and ignored.
There are various forms of abuse and mistreatment of the aged, ranging from physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and financial exploitation. Elder financial abuse involves misappropriation of financial resources by family members, caregivers, or stranger. Intentionally or unintentionally neglecting to care for an elderly person is also abuse.
“It’s difficult to take care of a senior who has many different needs, and it’s difficult to be elderly when age brings with it infirmities and dependence. Both the demands of caregiving and the needs of the elder can create situations in which abuse is more likely to occur,” explains Irene Snell-Carroll of Age In Action – a body representing more than 2.7 million older people and dedicated to ensuring the well-being, safety and security of vulnerable and needy older persons.
“Many nonprofessional caregivers – spouses, adult children, other relatives and friends – find taking care of an elder to be satisfying and enriching. But the responsibilities and demands of caregiving, which escalate as the elder’s condition deteriorates, can also cause significant stress. The stress of elder care can lead to mental and physical health problems that leave caregivers burned out, impatient, and more susceptible to neglecting or lashing out at the elders in their care.
One of the biggest issues with elder abuse is that can often masquerade as symptoms of dementia or a person’s frailty (which is why these unspeakable acts are easy to carry out). A caregiver can easily pass off a person’s complaints as dementia or even plain grumpiness on the part of the older person. A warning sign can be if there is frequent friction between the caregiver and the elderly person or if there are personality changes in the patient.
Look out for physical signs such as bruises, welts, sprains, broken bones or broken personal possessions like spectacles, for example. Often the caregiver will try to be as pleasant as possible to mask the abuse. Indications of emotional abuse could be if you witness belittling or controlling behaviour from the caregiver and behaviour from the victim that looks a lot like dementia, such as rocking, sucking or mumbling. Sexual abuse will show in bruises around the breasts or genitals, unexplained genital infections, vaginal or anal bleeding, torn or bloody underwear. General neglect will show in weight loss, dehydration, bed sores, unhygienic conditions and so on. Watch for significant withdrawals from accounts, items or cash taken from the household, suspicious changes in the will, power of attorney changes, policies altered or unnecessary services or goods ordered. If you are the elder being abused, in any way whatsoever, speak up. The abuse, neglect or sub-standard care, whatever form it takes, is criminal and entirely unacceptable and needs to be reported and abuser prosecuted.
While the Older Persons Act came into effect in April 2010 and aims to maintain and protect the constitutional rights of all older persons there is a lack of enforcement mechanisms for the various sets of rights conferred on older persons by the Act and law enforcement agencies often fail older victims who attempt to report abuse. The majority of older South Africans are not in residential care and there is a critical shortage of proper facilities to care for the elderly. Most of the elderly live in rural areas and in communities with their families or on their own. The care of older persons is regarded as the responsibility of the family and the state has made it clear that its duty to provide care applies only in the case of frail older persons who have no family to care for them. The expectation that elderly should be cared for by the younger generations has in some cases been turned upside down because of rapid social change, urbanization, migration, and the high incidence of HIV/AIDS.
In a recent case, an elderly woman, Martha Marais, 76, was tied to a metal bench by two doctors, a nurse and a security guard after being admitted at Mamelodi Hospital. A distressing video shows her daughter Stephnie Marais trying to untie the traumatised woman and asking how this could be done to a vulnerable, ailing elderly woman. Viginia Keppler, a family friend, said Marais was a fragile and quiet person, and would never be violent, even in the event she did have a psychotic episode. The Department of Health and the SA Human Rights Commission are both carrying out investigations. The implicated staff have been put on special leave.
Ways that you can make a difference in the lives of older people:
- Visit or call your elderly loved ones and invite them to family gatherings and other special occasions.
- If you know of an elderly person who has a family member or a professional person serving as a caregiver, support this person by helping out sometimes and making sure they get a break.
- Contact your non-governmental organisations that support the elderly and offer your support in the form of donations, fundraising or volunteering.
- Volunteer your time and service to old aged homes or to a housebound elderly person.
- Talk about elder abuse to your friends and family to create awareness so that we can bust the myths and stigmas about this kind of exploitation of the vulnerable.
Stop elder abuse
Phone any police station or the number 10111. Abuse can also be reported to the Department of Social Development on 0800 220 250, or you can contact Age In Action on their careline on 0800 333 231, or office number on 021 423 0204.