June 15 marks the World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. The World Health Organization (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.” An article titled ‘Elder Abuse and Ageism During Covid-19’ by Dr. Mansoor Malik et al., highlights that in the United States, one in ten individuals over 60 years experiences “physical, verbal, or sexual abuse, or financial exploitations.” Further aggravating the situation is that elder abuse is underreported, with only one in 24 cases being reported.
It is important to recognize and act to prevent abuse and violence against the elderly population. Older persons are important to our society and play a vital role, from contributing to the economy to passing down generational wisdom. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs highlights that “violence, abuse and neglect of older persons” is one of the most overlooked human rights issues. The infringement of rights of older persons, reflects on our humanity and questions our morality. Simply, the older population also have human rights.
The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs announced “Access to Justice” as the theme for this year’s World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. This theme aims to create awareness on the struggles of the elderly population with “issues of accessibility, affordability, reasonable accommodation, excessive delays and backlogs in judicial processes, impact of digitalization, cultural norms, gender bias, discrimination, and entrenched ageism in policy, norms and practices.” UN News highlighted that access to justice includes “the right to a fair trial, equal access to and equality before the courts, and just and timely remedies for human rights violations.”
This report aims to present the violence, abuse, and discrimination of older persons in the context of Covid-19. The violence against the older population has exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to UN Independent Expert, Claudia Mahler. She expressed that “distressing reports from care homes in different parts of the world showed neglect, isolation and lack of adequate services, including healthcare, social and legal services,” highlighting the gravity of this elderly rights violation issue.
The UN News reported on June 14, 2021, that “gender-based violence, abuse and neglect of older persons confined with[in] family members and caregivers” have escalated during lockdown periods due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, Claudia Mahler highlighted that the infringement of rights of older persons includes; untimely practices related to judicial matters that limits resolving of legal matters, and the profound need for detailed information to identify abuse patterns and gaps in current services. She also expressed the urgent need to “identify concrete action needed to provide adequate protection to older persons” in her message for the World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
The impact of Covid-19 on violence and abuse experienced by older persons have varying magnitudes. In May 2021, the UN News reported on the negative impact of the pandemic on the older refugees living in Latin America. The UN refugee agency and the HelpAge International Organization highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the “physical and mental health, nutrition, finances and legal status” of refugees in Latin America due to constraints in accessing essential rights and services. To emphasize the limitations in accessing health care for older refugees in Latin America, the UN News report focused on a study titled, “A claim to dignity: Ageing on the Move,” which included the participation of 865 older persons from Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, and Peru. The study findings emphasized on the neglect of older persons as the findings include: 42% with no treatments for existing conditions, and 6% infected with Covid-19 not receiving sufficient healthcare. Therefore, there has been a serious impact on mental health of displaced older people, as UN News reported on the loneliness caused by isolation and limited contact with family and friends.
Furthermore, the economic impact of the pandemic has in turn reduced the intake of food and access to other necessities such as electricity for older refugees in Latin America. The UN News report emphasized the constraints in food intake through the comparison of the pre-pandemic with the ongoing-pandemic scenario shows that “prior to the pandemic, one in four [people] had to skip meals, and the crisis has caused 41 per cent to further reduce their food intake.” These hardships faced by older refugees are exacerbated if they are the breadwinners and caretakers in their families. The UN News report shared that 60% of this population takes care of children and 5% take care of people living with disabilities. There are also accommodation issues, such as evictions due to the unaffordability associated with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The tangible aspects related to the violence and abuse of older persons are focused on the aforementioned aspects, such as healthcare and the economic burden. However, there are also intricate matters that relates to the social aspect of violence and abuse of older persons. The World Health Organization (WHO) published the ‘Global Report on Ageism’ in March 2021, which describes how elder abuse and violations is fueled by ageist attitudes. The Global Report describes ageism as “when age is used to categorize and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage and injustice and erode solidarity across generations.” This report also emphasized the impact of ageism on the declining health of people and highlighted how ageism can be a significant barrier in implementing policies and initiating measures for healthy aging.
Further, the impact of ageism on the health of older persons is highlighted in the article by Dr. Mansoor Malik et al. This article reports that ageist attitudes among health care professionals, including physicians and nurses, can place older persons at risk due to discriminatory practices. Such discriminatory practices include “withholding certain treatment options, and exclusion from clinical trials” based on assumptions on functional and cognitive abilities of older persons. On the other hand, the UN News Report, in response to the impact of ageism on the economy, highlighted the discrimination faced by older persons in employment situations such as having limited job opportunities. Such situations and discriminations can be especially threatening for the livelihoods of older persons, as it results in low income at a time of crisis because of the pandemic. Hence, urgent action is necessary to identify and mitigate the social causes of discrimination of older persons.
On a positive note, the WHO Global Report details a framework to reduce ageism and has specific recommendations for various actors. The three main strategies to combat ageism according to the Global Report are creating effective policies and laws, educational interventions that can mitigate ageism, and intergenerational contact interventions.
It is important to recognize the power of creating awareness of elder abuse. Educating ourselves and the greater community can help dismantle systemic and individualized ageist attitudes. Thus, it is important that international, multilateral, and non-governmental organizations recognize the devastating situation of abuse and violence experienced by older persons and take immediate action to make changes. The specific recommendations and strategies by the WHO can be the steppingstone to creating an equitable society where elder abuse will not be ignored or tolerated; a society where the human rights of older persons will be protected.