Over the past three decades, tremendous strides have been made in identifying and increasing awareness about patterns of abusive relationships. However, the abuse of older people is a hidden and an often ignored problem in our society. Awareness about child abuse has dramatically increased in the past few years and governments have been proactive in taking measures and introducing laws to identify and tackle the issue. However, the abuse of older people remains in the background. Awareness levels and a commitment to the cause remain dismal despite the annual World Elder Abuse Awareness Day or WEAAD, which was observed on Friday—June 15 this year.
To give a brief history, in Madrid in April 2002, countries throughout the world adopted the United Nations International plan of action on ageing. The plan of action recognized the importance of addressing and preventing abuse and neglect of older people. It identified that mistreatment of older people was a violation of internationally recognized human rights.
WEAAD was first developed and launched by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA) on June 15, 2006 to support the Madrid plan of action on ageing. It involves activities to bring greater attention towards mistreatment of older people wherever they live throughout the world, and to highlight the need for appropriate action. It is intended to make abuse and neglect of older people globally relevant and known in order to initiate and sustain prevention efforts forward throughout the year, and for years to come.
WEAAD involves national and international activities developed by countries, communities, neighborhoods and organizations collaborating in multigenerational and multidisciplinary initiatives. It includes volunteer and educational programs, cultural and art events, as well as diverse use of information technology, all aiming to create a better understanding of what elder abuse is and how it can be prevented.
Owing to advancement in medicine and technology, as well as the adoption of healthier lifestyles, life expectancy has increased and people are living longer. As a result of the increasing number of older people, cases involving their abuse are bound to increase, and the impact of elder abuse on public health will certainly deepen.
According to World Health Organization (WHO), 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 be physical, psychological or emotional, sexual, financial or can relate to neglect (intentional or unintended) and abandonment.
In many parts of the world, elder abuse does not elicit much response from the society. Until recently, this critical social problem was hidden from the public and considered mostly a private matter. Even today, elder abuse continues to be a 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 social problem.
This form of abuse exists in both developing and developed countries, and yet it is typically underreported globally. Prevalence rates or estimates exist only in selected developed countries—ranging from one percent to 10 percent of the elderly population. Although the extent of mistreatment of elders is unknown, its social and moral significance is obvious. It demands a global multifaceted response, one which focuses on protecting the rights of older persons.
The prevalence of elder abuse is difficult to quantify for a number of reasons. Abuse is frequently hidden, may not be obvious even to the victim, and is likely to be underreported. Approaches to define, detect and address elder abuse need to be placed within a cultural context and considered alongside culturally specific risk factors. For example, in some traditional societies, older widows are subjected to forced marriages while in others; isolated older women are accused of witchcraft. From a health and social perspective, unless both primary health care and social service sectors are well equipped to identify and deal with the problem, elder abuse will continue to be underdiagnosed and overlooked.
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) intends to make abuse and neglect of older people globally relevant and known so as to initiate sustained prevention efforts.
After the continuous observation of WEAAD around the globe for past six years, UN declared June 15 as an official UN International Day this year. As this is a relatively new concern for Nepal, people are oblivious to it and do not realize that the old are abused as well.
We must recognize that abuse can occur to all age groups. Ageing Nepal—an NGO that works on different concerns of ageing in Nepal, is celebrating WEAAD by organizing various programs around the issue of elder abuse through the month of June. The awareness program of the organization includes orientation lectures on elder abuse in schools and colleges; essay competition among students; publishing articles in dailies and weeklies; radio and TV discussions; production and distribution of pamphlets; displaying placards and banners in public places; organizing group meetings and networking to increase the number of organizations and individuals involved in observing WEAAD.
The key to addressing any social ill is active participation and campaign against it by all stakeholders—including the government, civil society and the citizens of the country. Thus, it is imperative that we all wake up and start acknowledging the presence of this unfortunate social ill so that we can all work together towards eliminating it. This is important, ‘for your own safer old age tomorrow’.
The author is a researcher at Ageing Nepal and recently completed his thesis on “Effects of Migrants on Wellbeing of Ageing Population in Rural Nepal.