Respect, care for the elderly

2016-06-22 06:00
Recognise an older person’s fundamental right -   appreciate who they are. PHOTO: Peter Wickham

Recognise an older person’s fundamental right - appreciate who they are. PHOTO: Peter Wickham

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WITH World Elder Abuse Awareness Day being on 15 June it is time to reflect on what it means.

Some of us probably have a clear idea of elder abuse, with a mental picture of someone violently hitting out at a frail old lady and we are horrified at the thought of a vulnerable older person being treated so badly.

But abuse is complicated because, as with children, older people are most likely to be abused in their home by the very people who care for them, and abuse takes many forms – not just physically.

Abuse occurs when those living with an older person screams at them and tells them they are useless, they have no purpose and they should just die. This is verbal and psychological abuse, denying that person’s value and dignity as a human being.

Telling someone – child or senior - that they are useless tells them they are worthless. The belief that your life might be of no value to any one is devastating. This causes major depression and depressed people stop believing in their ability to do things for themselves, which causes greater dependence and chances are, greater frustration for the person caring for the elder and subsequently more verbal abuse - a vicious circle.

We forget to see in the older person the contribution they made as an active and fully functioning adult. We forget who they were. Maybe we never knew them as a healthy and energetic somebody, seeing only the crumpled shrunken old person in a wheelchair - denying, or forgetting, the fullness of life the older person knew and the role they played in our history.

Abuse also occurs when family (or people providing rooms in the community) take rent from an older person, but do not provide adequate care. They might be away all day leaving a bedridden person alone to fend for themselves. How do they access food, water or the toilet?

But life can be complicated - the family may have to work, there may be no one with whom to leave the older person. Bear in mind that in the whole of KZN, there is only one state-owned old-age home. The others are privately owned or run by the NGO sector with minimal funding from the state.

At Padca we have three frail-care facilities with only one catering for people with limited means. With the exception of a few old-age homes, the funding from the state provides less than a third of the cost of the care of a single person and that third is only provided for residents who meet a very strict set of criteria.

NGOs are forced to find the balance of the cost for care where they can. This results in long waiting lists and limited accommodation leaving older persons vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.

While many people may decry our country’s system of paying pensions to most of our citizens over 60, research has repeatedly proven that the pension is in fact the greatest security an older person can have. It keeps families together, provides for schooling and goes a long way toward ensuring that people have some food in their bellies at night.

Gogos with pensions play a vital role in the lives of their families and in functional families, these family members in turn have great care and respect for their gogos. But as drug abuse sweeps through our rural and peri- urban communities in an unprecedented flow when young unemployed youth turn to drugs to mask the hardships of life, their addiction quickly puts our elderly at risk as they are perceived as an easy and, sadly, a “rightful” source of money for a compulsive drug habit.

People with drug and alcohol addictions behave erratically and will often become violent both as a consequence of substance abuse, but also in their search for money to support their habit leaving our elderly particularly vulnerable in situations where substance abuse is prevalent.

Then there are those in the community who take the Sassa card, or bank cards, with the ostensibly good intention of collecting the pension for the older person who has difficulty accessing pay points.

While some community members are genuinely trying to be helpful, for others this is an easy source of income, demanding huge cuts of the pension for their trouble. This financial abuse is rife among older persons who have limited family support, and who are unsure of their rights.

This financial abuse is difficult to curtail as the older person and the abuser live in the same community and the threat of being left completely alone to fend for oneself can be scary for an older person who has no children and has lost contact with other family members, who may themselves be deceased by now.

It is easy to be judgmental of people who we deem to be abusive of elders, but how often have we got stuck behind a dear little old lady, exercising her right to independence, driving at a careful 40km/h through town leaving us swearing in frustration because we are running late for an appointment or are hectically trying to do an hour’s running around in 20 minutes, desperate to pick up the children from aftercare before they charge for the next half hour. This is abusive because we are dismissive of her right to be there.

So what do we do to combat abuse?

In the words of a wise elder: “You cannot change the world, all you can do is change yourself. And when we begin to change our attitude we begin to change the world.”

So take a breath - recognise an older person’s fundamental right to be in that place at that time. They have earned that right by being competent active adults for some 50 years of their life. In fact, for the vast majority, they remain competent active adults - just a little slower than they were a few years ago. Appreciate who they are and the experiences they bring to the palette of life, the history their lives have helped to create. Spend a bit of time and a whole lot of respect next time you meet an elder in the community, and teach your children well, because they will be the people responding to you when your time comes to fulfil the role of senior in your community.

Should you be concerned about an elderly person’s well being, contact one of our social workers at Padca - Jo-Anne, Kim or Rose on 033 345 4711. - Supplied.

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