Show the elderly the respect they have earned

2016-06-16 06:00
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WE all probably have a clear idea of elder abuse, with a mental picture of someone violently hitting out at a frail old woman, 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 own homes by the very people who are caring for them. And abuse takes many forms, not just physical harm.

Abuse occurs when those living with older people end up screaming at them and telling them that 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 anyone 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 older people the contribution they made as active and fully functioning adults. We forget who they were. Maybe we never knew an elderly person as a healthy and energetic somebody, seeing only the crumpled, shrunken old person in a wheelchair.

Abuse also occurs when families (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 him or herself. How to 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. In KZN, there is only one state-owned old-age home. The others are all privately owned or run by the NGO sector with minimal funding from the state. With the exception of a very 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 people 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 towards ensuring that people have some food in their stomachs 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 people in the community who take the Sassa (SA Social Security Agency) 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 people 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, or whose family has died.

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 40 km/h through town, leaving us swearing in frustration because we are running late for something? 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 some time and show a whole lot of respect the 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.

• Jo-Ann Stevens-O’Connor is the social-work manager at Padca.

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.

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