This month it was Elder Abuse Awareness Week, and the spotlight was put on how we treat our elderly as a community and what constitutes abuse. BRIEN CREE, managing director of Radius Care, explores the issue.

It’s traditional to think of abuse as something that is inflicted on someone physically or verbally, or it might be an abuse of human rights or of someone’s property in the form of damage or theft. I think, when it comes to the elderly, perhaps the hardest form of abuse for us as a society to look at is neglect, and what actually constitutes neglect.

In Western society, unlike in other cultures around the world, we don’t tend to live in extended family arrangements, we are usually more spread out. Often an elderly parent or relative is in a different city, sometimes many hours away and very often living alone.

With the busy lives that we lead, keeping in touch with an elderly relative can be difficult.

What is even more difficult to monitor in often infrequent visits is how the elderly person is doing mentally, or how they are coping on a day-to-day basis. Depression in the elderly is a major mental health issue in New Zealand, which is an indication that many of our elderly are not coping living in isolation, even if they seem to be doing ok with their basic living requirements.

What I find interesting is that historically there has been a perception in our society that putting someone into residential care is a form of abuse. Often you’ll hear people say “I’d never put my parents into a resthome”. There seems to be a misconception leftover from the inadequate resthomes of 25 years or more ago, that putting a loved one into residential care is a form of neglect.

Residential care has changed drastically since the days when it was an undesirable place to be. The industry has shifted to be a proactive rather than a reactive one, and there are rigorous auditing processes in place, as well as high expectations from the community and the residents themselves around what level of care should be provided.

Through my experience of running Radius Care over the last twelve years, I can categorically say that putting a loved one into a care facility is going to bring them much greater happiness and wellbeing in their later years than leaving them in isolation in their own home.

In the same way that preschool care is no longer stigmatised because it has come to light that children who have been in preschool start school better prepared, more socialised and with more skills, residential care facilities provide more stimulation, social life, community, activities and care than an elderly person could ever get on their own when they are living away from their family.

Western society could learn a lot from other cultures about its duty to care for the elderly – in many other cultures around the world, the elderly are respected and looked after in the same way that the young are.

As long as it is not practical in our society for many families to look after their elderly family members, I think we have a duty to ensure that our elderly are looked after by the experts in aged care.

This acknowledgement needs to come not only from the wider community but also from the District Health Boards in the way that they assess whether or not an elderly person is eligible for residential care. Currently, the assessment requires that a person is incapable of looking after themselves before they meet the criteria to be in residential care. The emotional wellbeing of the person is not considered to be a priority, and neither in any meaningful way is the person’s day to day ability to care for themselves. The reality is that the DHBs want to keep people out of resthomes because of the costs involved, even if this is at the expense of the wellbeing of the elderly person being assessed.

For the sake of our elderly, it’s time we started acknowledging that neglect is actually leaving an elderly loved one on their own for the majority of the time to largely fend for themselves. We need to stop stigmatising or avoiding residential care to the detriment of those who stand to benefit from it. If we’re honest with ourselves as a society, we know that the elderly deserve much better than to be left to fend for themselves on a daily basis when there are much more attractive alternatives.

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