When a tragic case of child abuse emerges, it hits the headlines and a national outcry – rightly so – follows. But the same cannot be said for elderly people. When a case of abuse emerges, it rarely hits the headlines or even gets any attention at all.
At UNISON’s conference in Bournemouth today, delegates will hear that elder abuse is a growing problem that we need to face up to. Our retired members are keeping up their campaign to push elder abuse up the political agenda. Shocking new figures show that every year, nearly half a million older people in the UK suffer some form of physical, psychological, financial and/or sexual abuse. Sadly, elder abuse and neglect can occur anywhere; in a person’s own home, a carer’s home, or in a residential care home, and can be carried out by anyone in a position of trust.
The vast majority (67%) of those who suffer from this form of abuse are women. More than three quarters of abuse (78%) is perpetrated against people who are over the age of 70, with 16% of abuse affecting people over the age of 90. For both men and women, it appears that the ages between 80 and 89 years is the time people are most vulnerable to abuse. Nearly 25% of abuse occurs in care homes – a disproportionate figure given that less than 5% of the population live in such settings.
A big issue standing in the way of progress is that there is no UK wide specific legislation to deal with the elderly – only guidance issued by the Department of Health and the Home Office. This requires local authorities to work together to establish multi-agency policies and procedures for addressing elder abuse.
UNISON’s retired members believe that this does not go far enough. Legislation would give efforts to tackle elder abuse a similar status to that of child protection, give professionals the necessary powers to act in abusive situations, ensure adequate funding and send a message to abusers that their behaviour is unacceptable to society and will be taken seriously.
We also need to see a reverse of the damaging trend of the downgrading of care work. High quality care and support services, provided by a fully trained and motivated public service workforce would help tackle elder abuse. This would be possible as a part of a National Care Service, provided free to all who need it, on the same universal principles as the National Health Service. The government cannot shy away from the fact that without serious public funding it will not be possible to tackle the growing crisis in elderly care. We will be calling on them to do so in the White Paper on Social Care due to be published shortly and will continue to warn the government that massive cuts hitting councils are only going to make a bad situation worse. One major cause of elder abuse has been identified as social isolation and this is likely to be a growing problem due to the closure of day centres and cuts to other essential services.
UNISON’s retired members are also calling for elder abuse to be made a specific criminal offence with higher penalties where it can be shown that the perpetrator specifically targeted an older person.
Alison Roche is a Unison Policy officer. This post forms part of our coverage of Unison Conference 2012.