On June 15, 2021, the global community celebrated World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). As in 2020, this year’s celebration took place in the midst of global anxiety and uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
While some countries have gone far ahead with their vaccination programmes and are seeing rays of hope as the number of cases dwindles sharply, others are still struggling with increasing daily cases and slow vaccination rollouts.
Regardless of the situation we are in, it is worth highlighting that older adults, or senior citizens, have been disproportionately affected by this global health crisis.
Not only are older adults are dying at higher rates than their younger counterparts as a result of contracting Covid-19, they have also become victims of abuse and violence in the domestic and institutional sphere.
While evidence points to the rise of domestic violence cases during the lockdown periods, focus has been predominantly on intimate partner violence and child abuse while little is said about the victimisation of elders.
This year’s WEAAD theme, “Access to Justice”, reflects the growing need among older adults to fully exercise their human rights, including the right to health, the right to adequate social protection and to live in dignity.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in six older adults are victims of abuse and neglect, which translates into 141 million people globally.
This includes all forms of maltreatment such as physical assault, psychological manipulation, financial exploitation, sexual abuse and neglect (being deprived of basic needs and assistance required for independent living).
The Malaysian 2018 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) reported a prevalence of elder abuse at 9 per cent. This means almost one in 10 of our senior citizens suffer at the hands of their loved ones.
In many countries — including Malaysia — many older adults who have suffered from abuse, neglect or exploitation face numerous barriers in accessing judicial remedies.
Some do not even have a legal option due the lack of specific acts for older adults. This is further compounded by the usual reluctance to report their abuse experiences to anyone due to the fear of implicating family members.
Given the strong culture of respect for elders in our society and emphasis on familism over individualism, speaking up about one’s abuse experiences in old age is a difficult confession to which stigma can be attached.
Older adults often see themselves as providers of stability and shelter, thus bringing up uncomfortable issues that can create tension and break family ties is avoided at all cost — even if that occurs at their own expense.
The rapidly growing older population that is accompanied by the economic pressure of urban life and changing family structures will predictably increase elder abuse in the future.
While strengthening family ties, improving intergenerational relationships and providing more social protection for our elders are crucial, it is equally important to have a clear and comprehensive plan for long-term care (LTC) financing and services.
These services are much needed, given the rise of chronic diseases and disabilities among our senior citizens, especially in the oldest age group.
As more seniors become frail, LTC will have to come into the scene to partly play the role of families in providing care. This does not mean the replacement of families by formal workers or institutions, for our collective values are still inclined to informal and community-based care.
Rather, LTC is complementary to the family role, and a sign of humility and acknowledgment of our weakness.
It is a reminder that despite our desire to protect and care for our elders, we can easily succumb to committing unintentional neglect, and hence abuse, due to our limitations and other pressing commitments.
Beyond the typical discussions of elder abuse in the mainstream media and academic discourse, I would like to draw the readers’ attention to the practice of inclusivity.
Facilitating access to justice among victims of elder abuse means justice should be made accessible to all older adults, regardless of their gender, nationality, skin colour, religion, race or legal status.
There are many hidden, invisible elders whom we know little of, rarely speak about, or do not include in community and national programmes.
These are older adults who belong to marginalised communities like the poor and homeless, the disabled, refugees and asylum seekers, the stateless people, undocumented migrants, and many more.
While chanting “Access to Justice” for older adults in Malaysia and beyond, let us make sure we do not exclude the ‘others’, lest we become the perpetrators of injustice.
Raudah Yunus is from University Teknologi MARA and the PEACE Initiative Group, University of Malaya.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.