Heartbreaking cases of elder abuse

Pictured after the luncheon are, from left, speaker Ruth Mazengarb, Resthaven community and events co-ordinator Gaylene Callaghan, Cambridge Resthaven trustee Mark Brown, and speaker Jane Kay. Both Ruth and Jane are on Age Concern Hamilton’s Elder Abuse Response team.

Luncheon guests at Cambridge Resthaven’s Village Centre heard last week how cases of elder abuse in New Zealand are tearing families apart and leaving many older people in despair.

Resthaven organised the event in support of Elder Abuse Awareness Week (June 15-22), which started with World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15.  The New Zealand theme this year is Elder Abuse Hits Close to Home, signifying the numbers of older people abused by family members.

The gathering of about 50 people was made up of representatives from Age Concern, Grey Power, Senior Citizens, and several other local groups and organisations, as well as residents from Resthaven and around Cambridge.

Addressing the topic were Jane Kay and Ruth Mazengarb, both members of Age Concern Hamilton’s Elder Abuse Response Team.  They said only an estimated 1 in 14 cases of alleged abuse are reported, suggesting that the number of incidents is far greater.  Many older people fear retribution at the hands of family caregivers, they said, and so choose not to speak out or “rock the boat”.

“There is so much legislation around abuse of all kinds, you would think there would be no abuse,” said Jane. “But every day we are shocked and horrified to see what people are doing to others, often to elderly relatives who have nurtured and loved them throughout their lives.”

Most of the abuse identified is psychological (79 percent). Other forms include financial (51 percent), neglect (21 percent), physical (22 percent), and institutional (3.6 percent). Data shows that more than one type of abuse typically occurs simultaneously.

Jane said while institutional abuse “hits the headlines and is often exaggerated”, it was extremely rare and was generally easier to deal with. That was because rest-home managers were generally keen to investigate issues around abuse, she said, while those caring for older people in private homes often blocked access by investigators to the person they were looking after.

She said there were “two red flags” which for her signalled a potential problem. One was when the caregiver unnecessarily “hovered” during a visit from other people, and the other was when the caregiver blocked attempts to make an appointment or referral for the older person.

Jane cited incidences where carers spoken openly of their resentment, claiming their lives had been ruined by having to look after elderly relatives and causing much anguish for those being cared for.

“Comments like that are really hurtful. They can cause symptoms which appear similar to those linked to dementia but are often simply due to the stressful environments in which they live.”

Another case involved a couple persuaded to hand over their life savings to purchase a much larger family home, ostensibly for an idyllic multi-generational future, only to be evicted several months later.

“One big area of concern is misunderstanding around an Enduring Power of Attorney (EPOW),” she said. “What is often not understood is that no-one else can make decisions linked to that EPOW until the person whose name it is under has been declared by a medical professional to be incompetent to handle their affairs.”

She said there were many cases where family members financially abused those they were caring for, where the “apparent care is not being given out of the goodness of their heart, it is being done to meet their own ends”.

Jane and Ruth urged people to have the courage to speak up about suspected cases of elder abuse.

“We investigate everything thoroughly and sensitively and look at evidence from all parties before taking steps,” said Jane.

Anyone wanting more information on the topic, or wanting to report cases of concern, should either phone 07-839 6714 or 07-839 6716, or email elderabuse@ageconcern.gen.nz.

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