World Elder Abuse Awareness Day may feel like just another ‘world something’ day and because of the taboo nature of the subject it may be something you want to let pass you by. However, elder abuse is an increasing problem and a much unreported crime. People living with dementia are at a greater risk of abuse as their symptoms may prevent them from speaking out or remembering what has occurred.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 6 people over the age of 60 have been subjected to some form of abuse over the past year but what is Elder Abuse? When we say abuse, we mean the physical, psychological or sexual harm, neglect (self-neglect or by a caregiver) or financial exploitation of vulnerable older people. Action on Elder Abuse defines it as ‘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’. 

In England the Care Act 2014 sets out a clear legal framework for a multi-agency safeguarding system that helps to identify and prevent abuse. This Act also puts the individual, who is at risk, at the heart of these safeguarding measures. But does this go far enough, would the perpetrators of abuse find it so easy if everyone with care needs had access to the individualised and caring support they require? If more people had access to well-trained caring staff and volunteers, like we have at Alzheimer’s & Dementia Support Services, would their cries go so unnoticed?

We have all seen the high-profile cases of care homes and other organisations failing those they are supposed to care for, and subjecting them to the most vile treatment and abuse. However, it would be unwise to think these are the only places that older people and people living with dementia are at risk. Abuse can take place behind any closed door, sometimes it even takes place in plain sight. All too often we see people being harmed either knowingly or unknowingly by family or friends, or others who are trusted. This is not always intentional, families struggling to cope with a lack of support, understanding or awareness may end up causing harm, abusing or neglecting the person they are meant to be looking after.

By understanding what abuse is and how to report it we can all make a big difference. One of the principles of safeguarding is empowerment, however, sometimes that empowerment process only takes place once someone has already been abused. We should empower all of our elders to understand their human rights and help them see that they are equally entitled to a free, safe and fulfilling life. Families and unpaid carers should be empowered to understand the symptoms of dementia and what help is available, before they get to crisis point and everyone should be able to access something like our carers learning group (link to page). We should also be empowering society, health and care staff and volunteers to know how to do the right thing.

It is often said that a mark of a society is how it’s older people and vulnerable citizens are treated. Unless we all understand what elder abuse is, we may just walk pass the closed door that behind it has a person, living with dementia, being harmed. Unless all of us have the confidence to report our concerns the number of elders experiencing abuse will keep on rising.

If you are concerned that you or someone you know is at risk of harm don’t ignore it, call your local council’s safeguarding team (Kent County Council 03000 416161) , or the police if you feel a crime has been committed. Most importantly don’t assume someone else will do something, you might be the one with the information that can prevent serious harm from happening.

Katie Antill, Senior Service Delivery Manager