Ireland Fails its Elderly Citizens: The Issue of Elder Abuse and the Lack of Legislation to Protect Victims – An Investigation

 

The heedless and harrowing future is speedily and dangerously developing for our generation and generations to come. Many of us have never experienced abuse on a devastating level, but many older people are suffering and being hurt on a weekly basis. Elder Abuse is a simmering problem in contemporary Irish society. Unfortunately, there is a lamentable lack of legislation protecting those who find themselves to be victims of such abuse.

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 or violates their human and civil rights.” [i]

There are several forms of abuse, any or all of which may be executed as the result of ignorance, negligence or deliberate intent.

Physical abuse: This includes hitting, slapping, negligence, ignorance or the misuse of medication.

Sexual abuse: Including sexual acts to which the older person has not consented, was resistant to consent or could not consent, and sexual assault.

Discriminatory abuse: Includes sexism, ageism, racism, that based on a person’s disability and other forms of torment, vexation or provocation.

Psychological abuse: Including threats of abandonment, humiliation, isolation, intimidation, emotional abuse and duress.

Financial/material abuse: Including theft, fraud, and pressure in connection with wills, property inheritance etc., or the misuse of possessions of benefits.

Neglect and acts of curtailment: Including withholding of medication, heating or adequate nutrition, ignoring physical care needs and failure to facilitate the older person with access to sufficient health, educational or social care services.

These loathsome acts are perpetually performed on some of Ireland’s most vulnerable all over the county. There have been numerous reports within the media detailing forms of this abuse in certain nursing homes and care institutions etc., yet still the Irish government has not made it a priority to at least begin drafting legislation to protect those braving this intolerable experience. We had a Children’s Referendum, yet there is no sign of an Elderly Adult’s Referendum in the works.

Photo credit - Kat Northern Lights Man.An elderly man sitting alone on a bench, looking at the ground, lost in his thoughts.
Photo credit – Kat Northern Lights Man.

Suzanne O’ Hara* is a Primary Care Occupational Therapist, who travels to the homes of older people who are unable to get to hospitals to receive treatment. Suzanne relayed to me one of her most horrific experiences while at work;

“Less than a year ago, there was an elderly woman whom I was due to visit. I rang ahead before I went over and there was no one there, so I decided I would check in on her another time. I came back a few days later and knocked on the door. The woman spoke to me through the door, and told me she could not let me in as her husband and son had locked her into the house and gone out. They hadn’t left a key or anything. I visited her a few times, and there was one day where I went into the house and she was alone, sitting up in her bed covered in faeces and urine. She was unable to tell me how long she had been alone for.”

Suzanne’s story takes a particularly nasty turn when she goes on to detail her attempt to get help for the elderly woman:

“To take action, I contacted a social worker who told me that, short of calling the Gardaí, nothing could be done. I alerted as many people as I possibly could; the woman’s GP, her social worker, her nurse… but there was no specific authority I could turn to for help with this. There was no emergency placement for the woman either. There was no system to deal with that issue as it happened, and no specific person I could phone to hand the case over to. I did a joint visit with the social worker to speak to the woman’s family and they argued that they did what they did from a ‘management’ point of view.”

This is not even the worst of what goes on regarding Elder Abuse. There are people in severe danger right now who will never get the help they need.

Locking people into their homes is related to the aforementioned type of abuse called ‘Neglect and Acts of Curtailment’, and is known as ‘Deprivation of Liberty’, and put quite simply; no one is allowed do that to anyone, regardless of the circumstances.       The issue of the elderly woman sitting alone in her bed covered in her own filth is straight up neglect; one of the ugliest and most devastating types of abuse.

Another disturbing aspect to this story is the fact that a fully qualified social worker could only advise Suzanne to call the Gardaí, and after that could be of no more assistance; it is absolutely not the job of the Gardaí to deal with issues of Elder Abuse.

Intrigued as to where a social worker really stands in this mess, I spoke to Ella Fitzgerald*, a Senior Practitioner Social Worker of Primary Care. Ella stated that there was “a serious lack of legal framework to support what is taking place.” She went on to say that any legislation that was in place was completely outdated, and pertaining to financial abuse, some legislation even falls short of criminal law standard. This retrenchment of legislation makes progressing towards helping victims “…slow, almost at a standstill,” says Fitzgerald.

To add to this, Ms Fitzgerald also referenced the lack of case workers, saying that this deficiency has enabled Elder Abuse to become chronic.

While plenty of older people are adequately cared for by family members, fewer older people now have the choice to avail of this form of personal care, thus are increasingly more reliant on public and private healthcare services to arrange the care they need. Due to life expectancy rising every year, there is a greater demand for and dependency on these state services (state services being home helps, public health nurses etc.)

The Irish Carers Association estimate that unpaid family care-givers are providing 193.7 million hours of care a year, saving the economy a staggering €2.5 billion per annum. The truly shocking minutia about this fact is that the majority of these carers are older people themselves. Is the Irish state really neglecting to assess the needs and rights of the elderly using ‘penny-saving’ as their motive?

Kathleen Lynch is a West-Cork TD who oversees the operation and running of the health services. After five emails and two phone calls to Ms Lynch, asking her to give the government’s side of the story, her secretary emailed me back giving a generic description of elder abuse and the organisations available for those enduring it. In other words, the question I put to Ms Lynch (“Is there any system in place in Ireland that can immediately, legitimately and directly assist an elderly person who has been found to be a victim of abuse?”) was completely ignored, and Ms Lynch, after 5 weeks of ignoring said question, has failed to comment.

In November 2004, the then-Minister for Health Mary Harney gave her assurance that she would “retain clear accountability for our health services.” The subsequent establishment of the HSE on the 1st of January 2005 was meant to resolutely conclude the issue of accountability once and for all. However, what has transpired is a health service and health policy system that is even less culpable and less vitreous than what it replaced. The 2004 Health Act did not specify the incumbency or the committal of the Health Service or the HSE[ii], thus leaving these organisations completely indisposed to and free of responsibility to older people waiting to receive the particular care they need – this neglect categorically and unequivocally counts as abuse. This unyielding myopia is madness.

Alice Bannon* spoke to me about Mary Cassidy*, a friend of hers who suffered financial and psychological abuse under the hand of her home-help in the years leading up to her death;

“If Mary wanted help with making the bed, washing her hair or getting the clothes off the line, her home help would refuse to do anything unless she paid her. There was one time where the help refused to iron unless she was given €20 for it. I remember Mary telling me one day that the home help said to her ‘If you complain about me to anyone, I’ll leave you and then you’ll have no one.’ I was very concerned and rang the HSE on behalf of Mary, to see if anything could be done. They said the only thing they could do was send down an inspector to interview the home help. That was it. So nothing was done.”

If you are or someone you know is experiencing Elder Abuse, while there is no practical system in place to turn to, there are a number of helplines and organisations you can contact to seek help, consolation, advice etc..

Age Action Ireland

A leading charity for older people which campaigns for better policies and services for older people. Works with older people to change attitudes and provide key services.

Phone: 1890 369 369              Email: library@ageaction.ie

 

Senior Help Line

For the price of a local call you will be talking to an older person. All calls are confidential.

Phone: 1850 440 444              Email: info@seniorhelpline.ie

 

STEP Ireland

STEP members are legal, accountancy, tax, banking, pension and insurance professionals who specialise in advising clients in relation to their personal affairs.

Email: info@step.ie

 

National Consumer Agency

Provides free and independent information on consumer rights.

Phone: 1890 432 432

 

Law Society of Ireland

Gives you legal advice and helps you organise your affairs.

Phone: 01 672 4800                Email: general@lawsociety.ie


 

[i] HSE National Communications Unit, Kilkenny, 2008

[ii] Sara Burke, Irish Apartheid: Healthcare Inequality in Ireland, 2009, New Island.

 

*Pseudo name