Speak up about elder abuse, it could be you one day

2010-10-01 00:00

TODAY is the International Day of Older People. Celebrated across the globe, this special day is an opportunity for the rights of older people to be highlighted and respected. However, in South Africa not every older person enjoys full human rights. Many are discriminated against, abused or regarded as a burden.

The Regulations to the Older Persons Act No 13 of 2006 were signed into law and published in the Government Gazette on April 1, 2010. This progressive piece of legislation establishes a framework for the protection and empowerment of older people, as well as the promotion of their status, rights, well-being, safety and security, but must be speedily implemented if it is to make a difference. The act is good news for older people who have been sidelined and vulnerable.

As with much new legislation, implementation is going to be the greatest challenge. Regardless of the doubts that many older people have regarding preparations by our provinces for implementation, it is indeed the responsibility primarily of the department of social development, but there are also many other role players.

Service providers and operators of old-age homes and other services need to know about the need for registration and the norms and standards which will apply to them. Lack of funding is a critical obstacle.

It will not be possible to register and monitor homes and community services without adequate staff, nor will it be possible to roll out home-based care services and train carers without increased funding.

Older people need to be prioritised in every budget. Special earmarked funding from Treasury needs to make this possible.

Without adequate funding, ideal staffing ratios cannot be applied. We have heard in the media recently of several fires that have happened in old-age homes, with tragic results. With minimum staff at night, there are just not enough hands to assist with proper evacuation procedures. For organisations caring for older people, it will be a struggle to maintain standards, unless funding is improved. Subsidies come nowhere near the unit cost of care.

It is a serious indictment on society that older people remain vulnerable and at risk of being abused. Elder abuse knows no boundaries — it occurs in all communities regardless of financial or social status.

As awareness grows around maltreatment of older people, more people will be able to recognize the signs of elder abuse, and realise that they cannot turn away, or sweep it under the carpet — they must do something about it. The Older Persons Act for the first time criminalises elder abuse and also imposes a duty to report abuse. Anyone who fails to report this crime is guilty of an offence.

Health-care providers, SAPF and the justice system all need to be made aware of their role in terms of the legislation.

Amongst the most vulnerable are those older people who live alone or who are mentally and physically frail and dependent on others for care, accommodation and/or financial and emotional support.

Increased dependency leads to increased vulnerability. Caregiver-stress is one of the highest risk factors, both out in the community and in facilities. A risk factor for abuse in facilities is inadequate staffing. While there is a perception that only older people in care facilities get abused, the reality is that in the community, abuse is much more difficult to expose — elder abuse is a hidden crime.

The Older Persons Act is not the only piece of legislation that aims to protect older people; all South African legislation applies to older people as well. But pieces of legislation will not put “caring” back into our communities — ageing is part of living and we will all grow old one day.

Let’s care for older people in the manner in which we would like to be treated one day, and include older people as a vital and integral part of our communities.

Older people have rights, but also responsibilities. Older people need to stand up for themselves, demand that their rights are respected and that they be treated with dignity. This is not always easy to do — but perhaps refusing, for example, to allow your grandchildren to speak to you with disrespect may be one small step in the right direction to start.

If you suspect or know that an older person is being abused, you can report this to your nearest department of social development office, the police or a social worker at the Pietermaritzburg and District Council for the Care of the Aged (Padca) at 033 345 4711. There is also a national toll-free 24-hour help line called Halt Elder Abuse Line (Heal) at 080 000 3081.

• Margie van Zyl is the CEO of Padca.

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