Failing Our Elders

Much as we live in a society where the very young are discounted and devalued, dehumanised by the very laws that supposedly protect them, we also live in a world in which our elders are equally disrespected and marginalised. Despite the fact that life expectancy is increasing, that numbers of elders are growing, their position in society is extremely tenuous, and that translates to extreme unsafety for many of the most vulnerable among them. For active older adults who managed to save for retirement and don’t experience health problems, the world can be a relatively safe place, but for those with medical needs, those who don’t have much money, those who are members of minority groups, aging can come with increasing hostility, and with that, danger.

Nowhere is that more evident than in long-term care intended for older adults, particularly those in need of skilled nursing care, but not always. Whether institutionalised or relying on at-home support to live independently, older adults can be extremely vulnerable to caregiver abuse, and most disgustingly, little or no action may be taken in some cases, despite horrific evidence. This can be a particularly acute problem for people like transgender elders, who may find that despite fighting for recognition, safety, and rights all their lives, at the end of their lives they may be at the mercy of institutions who do not treat them kindly.

There’s a myth that we respect and honour our elders as voices of experience and wisdom, but it’s not borne out in the way we treat older adults. Look at the disdain reserved for the knowledge and experience of many older adults, right down to the slew of advertisements touting ‘not your grandma’s product,’ suggesting that older women are stuck in the past, unable to move forward, frozen on old, outdated systems that don’t really work, insistent on refusing to adapt to the future. Look at the way older adult users of technology and the internet are treated, as though they are doing tricks rather than performing tasks of daily living; people are shocked and surprised that a grandfather might make YouTube videos, that a grandmother might be perfectly comfortable with advanced coding tasks.

Look at the way we discount ‘the old’ as a collective of useless individuals with nothing to offer, in the same way that we discount other groups we’re not interested in hearing from. And look at how that ties directly into how we handle the treatment of our elders; as ‘the old,’ they are not listened to when they report abuse and harassment, when they express concerns about their living conditions, when they ask for help. In some cases, they are unable to ask for assistance because it puts them in danger, and the young, hip, knowledgeable, oh-so-cool young people around them fail to notice the signs of distress, fail to intervene, fail to do anything about a situation that could turn tragic very quickly.

Older adults are beaten by their caregivers, at home, in group homes, in retirement facilities, in nursing homes. Like any skilled abuser, people who torment elders are often skilled at delivering the kind of beating that is difficult to easily detect unless you know what you are looking for. They are emotionally tormented, threatened, economically exploited; the home care provider who threatens to stop coming if the victim speaks up, the ‘caregiver’ who pockets benefit cheques, the orderly in a nursing home who threatens a patient with punishments if the patient tries to report the situation to anyone. Terrorised, some older adults are utterly dependent on their caregivers, and that alone is enough to keep them from speaking, because they fear being left alone to die, to molder in their own body fluids.

Older adults are raped by their caregivers, too, something many people seem uncomfortable with discussing, as though rape is a sexuality thing, and as though older adults are sexless, incapable of being interested in sexuality, let alone being viewed as sexually appealing by other people. But rape is not about sex, it is about power. Consenting sex between an older adult and someone of any age is a very different matter from sexual abuse by a supposed ‘caregiver’ who takes advantage of someone who is in a weakened or powerless position; the older adult who has trouble speaking, the elder living at home who relies on the caregiver to get groceries and other supplies, the nursing home patient with severe dementia. Or the low-income elder who’s thankful to have gotten housing, who doesn’t want to upset the apple cart and risk being thrown out on the street.

Reports of elder abuse are often not taken seriously by the authorities, which is very troubling. Like any abuse report, it should be followed up on, investigated, and thoroughly evaluated so the perpetrators can be brought to justice, yet often elders who are brave enough to step forward, or people who see something wrong and report it, encounter no action. No justice. A promise to ‘look into it’ followed by silence, a reminder that elders hold no value or importance in this society, and thus aren’t worthy of even the most perfunctory investigation.

Why are we failing our elders? For the same reason we fail other marginalised groups that don’t have the power to make their voices heard, and don’t live in a world where those with the power are willing to amplify their voices. Aging is something that can be intrinsically frightening as people watch their bodies and lives change, lose their friends, see a shift in their independence. And it’s also something that can be terrifying as people feel themselves slipping into invisibility, becoming one of a faceless mass that doesn’t matter to the rest of society. Aging can be isolating, and in that isolation lies vulnerability and a profound loss of dignity.

Sweeping reforms are needed in the handling of elder abuse reports and evaluations of elder care providers, because everyone, of every age, deserves to live in safety and without fear.