Wales can show way on protecting elderly
MANY older people need no protection – they are perfectly capable of protecting themselves.
But sometimes people find themselves in circumstances that make them vulnerable – a person may have a disability or they may be vulnerable following the death of a loved one, or because they are lonely.
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day reminds us that abuse of older people is a worldwide issue. Older people throughout the world are abused and neglected. Such abuse and neglect takes many forms, but it is rooted in what is a universal culture of ageism and a global failure to value older people and to respect their dignity.
It is tempting to assume that elder abuse rarely happens in Wales. Sadly, this is not the case. A recent report by the Care and Social Services Inspectorate for Wales shows a 9% rise in the number of adult protection referrals in 2009-10. Around 5,000 cases of abuse are being investigated in Wales every year, the majority of those cases involving older people.
On a regular basis we see media coverage about older people being mistreated. Elder abuse takes place in many different settings – for example, the older person’s home, care homes, nursing homes and hospitals. It happens when an older person’s human rights and dignity are violated. It can come through financial scams, physical attacks, sexual abuse, psychological abuse or neglect. The perpetrators are often in a position of trust and have control of the life of the older person.
Elder abuse is not easily defined because the causes are complex and multi-faceted. Age discrimination often underlies abuse of older people; when we attach less value to someone, we care less about what happens to them. Yet the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. Everyone.
Many people are sceptical about human rights, but the rights given to all people in the Human Rights Act are important in combating elder abuse. It is a human rights issue when a 67-year-old who needs to be helped to the toilet during the night is told that she will no longer be helped by a carer but will instead be fitted with incontinence pads – even though the woman is not incontinent (the case of Elaine McDonald, currently with the Supreme Court).
It is a human rights issue when older patients are assaulted, made fun of or tormented.
What can be done to put an end to such thoughtless or deliberate behaviour towards older people? What can be done to ensure that suspicions about elder abuse are investigated at an early stage?
The National Assembly for Wales now has primary law- making powers. The Law Commission has recently published proposals for the reform of adult social care law in England and Wales, including adult protection. It recommends a separate statute for Wales. In a White Paper earlier this year, the Welsh Government stated that it will introduce a more robust statutory framework for adult protection in Wales. This could place a duty on local authorities to investigate allegations of elder abuse at an early stage and could require agencies to share information so that evidence of abuse can be pieced together. The implementation of these reforms would make a significant difference to identifying and investigating elder abuse. The Government has also said that it will take account of the Adult Support and Protection (Scotland) Act 2007, which makes provision for strong powers of intervention where abuse is suspected.
It would be a powerful statement for the National Assembly if the first piece of legislation it enacts is an Act that helps protect the most vulnerable in our society.
Until such an Act is brought into force, we continue to rely on existing law. The guide to the law being launched today is a response to confusion about what existing law is available. It draws together many important pieces of legislation and describes them in plain language, accompanied by case studies. It covers topics such as the criminal law, mental capacity, deprivation of liberty and domestic violence.
Law on its own will not end elder abuse. That requires recognition by society that ageism in all its many forms is wrong. As they say, “age is just a number”. However, the law can play an important part in tackling elder abuse. It is important that we recognise that elder abuse will almost invariably be a criminal offence; if it is, then the older person is entitled to the same access to the law as other victims of crime. The law may also be used to intervene to protect an older person who is experiencing, or at risk of experiencing abuse.
Today is the sixth World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Elder abuse is a global problem.
Many organisations and individuals around the world are watching developments in Wales with interest.Wales is in a prime position to show the world that the human rights of older people in this country will be upheld and promoted.
Protection of Older People in Wales: A Guide to the Law is available from the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales’ website, www.olderpeoplewales.com Hard copies are available by phoning 08442 640 670