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UN urges action to prevent and protect older persons from abuse

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15, intends to create awareness regarding the abuse that elderly people face, and to protect their human rights and dignity.

By Robin Gomes

According to estimates by the UN World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 6 people aged over 60 suffers from abuse – that means nearly 141 million people globally. This number might be much higher as elder abuse is one of the most hidden and under-reported violations.

Claudia Mahler, the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, is urging all governments and the international community to exercise global solidarity and step up action to effectively prevent and protect older persons from physical and psychological abuse, including neglect.

WHO defines elder abuse 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 take various forms such as physical, psychological or emotional, sexual and financial abuse. It can also be the result of intentional or unintentional neglect.

"While older persons have become more visible in the COVID-19 outbreak, their voices, opinions and concerns remain unheard,” says Mahler in a message for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, marked on Monday.  

Verbal abuse

“With the number of older persons dying in homes, hospitals and institutions growing exponentially all over the world,” she notes, “it is disheartening to continue to read cruel and dehumanising language on social media referring to older persons.”  “Verbal abuse,” she says, “clearly occurs in contexts when older persons face old age discrimination ('ageism').”

Appointed as Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons in May, Mahler says she wants to “raise awareness that violence, abuse and neglect [of the elder] do not only occur in the open and very often are not visible to society”.  “Societies,” she says, “must raise their voices against verbal abuse and older persons, especially older women, must be included in the discussion on prevention of all types of violence against them.”

The UN has another day dedicated to the elderly. The International Day of Older Persons, on October 1, intends to highlight the important contributions that older people make to society and raises awareness of the opportunities and challenges of ageing in today’s world.

Pope Francis on elderly

On several occasions, Pope Francis has underscored the value of the elderly and their protection.

During the Covid-19 lockdown in Italy, the Holy Father dedicated his Mass of April 15 for the elderly, especially those who are in isolation on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of them, he said, are afraid of dying alone but “they are our roots, our story, our history” he said at the start of the Mass, streamed live.  He invited all to pray for them, “that the Lord might be close to them in this moment.”

The Holy Father also dedicated an entire general audience to the elderly, saying that ignoring and abandoning the elderly "is a brutal thing, it is a sin.”  Speaking at the general audience on March 4, 2015, he recalled Pope Benedict XVI who said, “The quality of a society, I mean of a civilization, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life.”  

The Pope noted "something vile" in this "throw-away culture”, that rejects people who are not useful or profitable. “We want to remove our growing fear of weakness and vulnerability; but by doing so we increase in the elderly the anxiety of being poorly tolerated and neglected.”

“In a civilization in which there is no room for the elderly or where they are thrown away because they create problems,” Pope Francis warned, “this society carries with it the virus of death.”

UN on Covid-19 and elderly people

The UN on May 1 launched a new policy initiative addressing the challenges faced by the elderly during and after the pandemic.

“The fatality rate for older people is higher overall, and for those over 80, it is five times the global average,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted in a video message for the launch of the policy brief entitled, “The Impact of COVID-19 on older persons”.

Guterres noted that beyond its immediate health impact, “the pandemic is putting older people at greater risk of poverty, discrimination and isolation, with a particularly devastating impact on older people in developing countries.”

A WHO report in early April pointed out that in the world’s top 30 countries with the largest percentage of older people, over 95% of Covid-19 deaths occurred among those older than 60 years. More than 50% of all fatalities involved people aged 80 years or older.

Noting that the Covid-19 pandemic is causing untold fear and suffering for older people across the world, he appealed that humanity’s response to the virus includes respect for the rights and dignity of older people.

Key facts of elder abuse

- Around 1 in 6 people 60 years and older experienced some form of abuse in community settings during the past year;

- Rates of elder abuse are high in institutions such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities, with 2 in 3 staff reporting that they have committed abuse in the past year;

- Elder abuse can lead to serious physical injuries and long-term psychological consequences;

- Elder abuse is predicted to increase as many countries are experiencing rapidly ageing populations;

- The global population of people aged 60 years and older will more than double, from 900 million in 2015 to about 2 billion in 2050.

15 June 2020, 15:30