What is Elder Abuse?

All families deal with differences in opinion, tastes and lifestyle. Personality clashes and what I’d term a ‘reasonable’ level of conflict are normal. But what is also normal, is that most families attempt to resolve those conflicts in the larger interest of maintaining their relationships and keeping the family together.

So how would you describe it when conflict is instigated? When division is deliberately created? When attempts at reconciliation are steadily ignored? This is the state of my maternal family, and it is my old grandmother Mercy who stands caught in the middle of this orchestrated chaos, financially dependant and in fragile health. Can this be considered ‘normal’? Acceptable?

Similar stories take place all across the world. Millions of elderly endure various forms of maltreatment, either in institutional settings like hospitals and aged care facilities, or in their homes. The scale and seriousness of the issue is underscored by the fact that bodies such as the United Nations and the World Health Organisation are formulating policies to address it. The commonly accepted definition of elder abuse as seen on the UN site and elsewhere states:

“Elder Abuse is 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.”

Many sites also note that often, caregivers are unaware that their actions or lack of them, constitute abuse. My family members are all ‘practicing’ Catholics; you’d think that “Honour thy father and mother” and “Love thy neighbour as thyself” should hold sacred, but no. Despite repeatedly reminding them of our spiritual code, and sharing these moral codes, there has been no change in those responsible. I have tried my best to explain these things to my grandmother, but she just can’t comprehend it. To her way of thinking, this is a family matter and must be resolved from within; she refuses to speak out to friends, or get advice from the church and other authorities.

I think it is easier to come to terms with the fact of abuse when it occurs outside the home, where the perpetrators are unrelated to the victim. Emotions aren’t as involved, there is greater objectivity and we can move from accepting that we have been victimised, to seeking redressal, to overcoming the trauma a lot faster where there are no familial ties between abuser and victim.

But it gets a lot murkier when the abuse takes place within a family, as in mine. There is a much stronger “expectation of trust” when we place our care in the hands of those related to us. My grandmother expected to be safe in the homes of her children, and in three out of four of those homes, that expectation was shattered. And so she chooses to live alone in her flat in Mumbai, afraid to return to those homes. Meanwhile, the pain of that neglect and the lack of unity among her children continues to manifest in one ailment after another. Where does this end?


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