02 October 2009

When grandparents are abused

There is an invisible group of people in our society: abused elders. And contrary to public perception, the abuse does not usually happen in institutions but in the community.

Jenny Watson* (77) gets beaten up at least once a week. She lives in an unheated outside room, is not fed properly and her grandchildren take all her money. In fact they’ve taken her bank card and they won’t let her into their house.

Jenny is part of an invisible group of people in our society: abused elders.

When we think of abuse, we usually think of children and women. But what many people are unaware of, is that elderly persons are often vulnerable to abuse. And contrary to public perception, the abuse does not usually happen in institutions but in the community.

HEAL (Halt Elder Abuse Line) is an NGO providing a telephonic helpline for older persons and members of the public who suspect elder abuse occurs. The organisation receives an average of 160 to 170 calls per month.

According to director Pat Lindgren, there has been an increase in the number of cases reported. However, Lindgren says it does not mean that elder abuse is on the increase. Elder abuse has always happened. It is just becoming more open due to greater awareness of the issue.

HEAL deals with various cases of abuse. Physical abuse is the most common form of abuse, but many cases of financial- and sexual abuse, such as rape by grandchildren, have been reported.

Rural areas
Many of the victims live in rural areas. Elderly black people, mainly women, are sometimes "identified" as witches by others in the community, and along with their hut, they are set alight and burnt to death.

It is reported that those "identified " as witches often have particularly wrinkled or darkened skins due to age, or are reclusive or independent and successful. It is also reported that a reason to rid an elderly person from the community might be motivated by the wish to obtain the elderly person's property or possessions. Most reports regarding witchcraft emanate from the Northern Province.

HEAL once investigated a case of a 75-year-old man and his wife who were being abused by the man they stayed with. They had to pay him R1 000 per month and he took their ID books, bank book and medical aid card. He drew their pensions each month, beat them regularly and didn’t give them food. The old man had to get up at 4 a.m. to collect and sell cardboard to get money for food. On a good day, he made R25.

A social worker from the SA Council for the Aged who investigated the matter further, found the couple in an outside room attached to the house of a family member. Tearfully they told of how they were beaten and sworn at daily, locked out of the main house, and they showed their "food ration" for the day: two teaspoons of coffee, sugar and powdered milk each. In the evening they were given a small helping of food.

The social worker immediately arranged for the couple to be accommodated in an old age home as an interim measure and laid a charge of elder abuse at the police station. After a year, the couple moved into a flat of their own.

Keeping quiet
According to Lindgren, they have had more successes than failures. However, she suspects that the majority of people keep quiet about their situation and don’t report the abuse for fear that perpetrators may become more abusive. They might also be scared that they would bring shame on the family and feel ashamed about what has happened to them, especially in the case of sexual abuse.

Many also do not know what their rights are, or are so used to the abuse, that they have come to accept it as part of life.

Of those who do report abuse, many prefer not to take any further steps. “It is difficult for parents to take steps against their own son or grandchild. Many also withdraw cases because of pressure from other family members. Hopefully there will be test cases, so that perpetrators get the message that such acts are unacceptable,” says Lindgren.

Although there are many similarities between child and elder abuse, there are also important differences.

“One is that elderly persons are adults and therefore able and entitled to make their own decisions. They can, for instance, choose to remain in an abusive situation and we need to respect their wishes.”

What should be done?
According to Lindgren, “People must realise that elder abuse is everybody’s problem. Communities need to be aware of what’s happening and know what to do to stop it. We can have legislation in place, but it is not going to solve the problem. Communities need to take responsibility. We need volunteers and experts such as lawyers and accountants should make their services available. There needs to be greater awareness of elderly people and their needs.” Jenny, and others in similar situations, could benefit greatly.

Where to go for help
HEAL telephone counsellors are available all hours, seven days a week. Tollfree number: 0800 003 081. – (Ilse Pauw, Health24)

- Updated May 2009

*Not her real name

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