From ageism to elder abuse to euthanasia?

Kilian de Lacy

An old man sits in his chair in the rest home, staring at the wall, wishing he were dead. The home has changed hands a few months ago and he is desperately unhappy. He has asked to be moved somewhere else but the proprietor, backed up by the health and government authorities, has told him he has to stay till he dies. His power of attorney is held by his sister, herself dying of cancer and unable to stand up for him. What else is there to look forward to but death?

When he first came into the rest home, he needed quite a lot of care. A diabetic, he had not been taking his medication, he was confused and required a high degree of supervision. The woman then in charge had looked after him, attended to his physical and psychological needs, and he had started to take control of his life again. But with the arrival of a new owner, things changed. He was bullied; his friends were denied access to the facility; his phone calls to his sister were monitored; his bank account was being accessed by the owner of the rest home without his permission and without any accountability for the money taken; his visits to his sister had strict conditions imposed on them. Understandably, his morale had dropped to zero, and his situation looked hopeless. He told his sister he just wanted to end it all.

This true story is a classic case of elder abuse and illustrates how lack of care and, worse, abuse, leads to a state of mind in which death appears as an obvious answer to an elderly person’s problems. For someone looking in from the outside not fully aware of the circumstances, the old man’s wish to die might seem a fair request. Surely, it might be asked, the kindest thing to do would be to accede to his wish to die? Give him some extra sleeping pills or a lethal injection and let him drift off, away from the harassment and bullying, no longer a burden to anyone, no longer having to suffer intolerably.

Unfortunately, the case illustrated above is not an isolated one. Elder abuse, (defined 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[1]) is a global problem. Age Concern New Zealand note that older people are particularly vulnerable to abuse because they are dependent on others and there is often an imbalance of power. A large community based study in the United Kingdom reported that 2.6% of older people experience some form of abuse or neglect each year.

The New Zealand experience, we are told, mirrors the international figures. 2.6% is equivalent to two older people in New Zealand being abused every hour of every day.[2] It is also said that only 16% of all abuse incidents reach service agencies. Part of the reason for this is that older people may fear a complaint will result in more abuse or poorer care. This means that abuse, once it starts, is likely to continue to happen.”[3] Age Concern New Zealand report that they deal with 1,000-1,500 new referrals a year, or four per working day of which approximately 1,000 are substantiated. If this figure represents only 16% of incidents, then the total number of cases is in the vicinity of 6,250 per year or 17 cases per day. It is not absurd to say that getting old in New Zealand is fast becoming a dangerous pastime.

In addition, it is reported that almost 80% of abuse is committed by family members. It is also known that family members continue to abuse their older relatives even when they are in residential care. Furthermore, over 40% of abusers are adult children.[4] As Baroness Ilora Finlay recently remarked: Parents love their children but children do not always love their parents.

Our elderly people deserve better. They have worked hard to build up our country, both in population terms and financially. While there is no denying that there are increased health and care costs for older people as they grow more frail, and while there are hard decisions to be made around the fair allocation of healthcare resources, we must resist viewing and speaking of the elderly primarily as financial (as well as emotional and social) liabilities. This is, in itself, a form of abuse, given that it will affect the way in which they come to see themselves – as burdens rather than as persons deserving the best of care and entitled to a sense of well-being and security. It would be grossly unjust for the elderly to bear a disproportionate burden of responsibility for solving a problem that affects all of society.

What is called for is a degree of soul-searching at the individual and societal level. Where are our priorities? Is it people or money which is the more important? The Maori certainly have an answer to that question: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata – it is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

For those inclined to consider the life of the old man highlighted above as worthless, of low quality, and generally not worth living, there is a happier ending. Following an eventual change of residence to a more supportive and caring environment, he is back to his old self, cheerful, participating in activities with other residents, happy and not in the least interested in wanting his life to be ended.

The subject of elder abuse is about to come under more scrutiny. If Maryan Street’s End of Life Choice Bill were to be picked out of the ballot and passed by parliament, it would become legal, and quite easy, for an elderly person to request assistance to die. Putting aside one’s views about the morality of euthanasia, one of the strongest reasons for opposing the legalisation of state-sanctioned assisted suicide is that there would be elderly people who would feel pressured, subtly or not so subtly, into asking for assistance to die.

The elder abuse statistics illustrate that this scenario would likely become commonplace. Chances are, were euthanasia legal, the elderly person in this story would not now be alive and enjoying life. That would represent a gross injustice and ultimately a failure on the part of all of us to protect a vulnerable person and to address the real issue of ageism and elder abuse. But of course none of us would know – we would, instead, be sitting back comforted by, and even proud of, the fact that we had allowed him to exercise his choice. And each of us is capable of putting a face to this scenario because the abused elderly person asking for euthanasia or assisted suicide could be our grandparent, our mother or father, our brother or sister or the old lady next door who gives the children sweets when they visit … or even ourselves.

In the current ageist climate legalising euthanasia would be nothing other than downright dangerous for the elderly. What is urgently needed is a concerted drive to terminate elder abuse and to work towards a more inclusive, more caring and less ageist society.

Elder Abuse: Who is involved?

  • 65% to 70% of abused are women. Even taking account of the fact that there are six women over the age of 65 for every five men, women are over-represented as victims of elder abuse.
  • 40% to 46% of abused live alone.
  • Up to 80% of abuse is committed by family members. Family members continue to abuse their older relatives even when that person is in residential care.
  • Up to 50% of abusers are adult children.
  • Unlike other forms of family violence, abusers are as likely to be female as male.
  • Up to 35% of abusers are primary caregivers. This could be a family member or support worker if the person is living in the community, or a staff member if the person is living in residential care.

Elder Abuse: The impact on older people

  • For about half of the older people supported by Age Concern over the last ten years, their health was significantly affected by the abuse they experienced.
  • Two out of every five abused people experienced significant reduction in their independence, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and reported feeling very frightened or anxious and emotionally distressed.
  • About a quarter experienced long-term consequences.

Source: Age Concern:

Kilian de Lacy is a writer and a nurse (now retired) who specialised in the care of the elderly and dying. She continues to work with the elderly through Grey Power. She also provides budgeting advice for vulnerable individuals and families through Agape Budgeting Service. She is an active member of Holy Family Parish, Porirua.

[1]World Health Organisation. (2002). Toronto Declaration on the Global Prevention of Elder Abuse. Geneva: WHO
[2]Age Concern New Zealand Ltd. (2012), accessed 30 August 2012.
[3]Age Concern New Zealand Ltd. (2012), accessed 30 August 2012.