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Misperception about elder abuse

There are two major categories of places where elder abuse can occur. In institutional settings – like senior homes, assisted living facilities, hospices and hospitals etc. The other is in private homes – homes of the seniors themselves, or the homes of family/relatives with whom the seniors live.

In India the availability of senior homes / assisted living facilities is limited, and so are reliable statistics for availability. In a 2013 survey of 24 cities, Helpage India found 23% of seniors had faced elder abuse and that 83% were living with family. Twenty-three percent is about two and a half to three times the rate reported in the US. An older, but more extensive, nationwide survey conducted by the National Center on Elder Abuse in the US estimated that approximately 1 in 10  seniors faced abuse and that 90% of elder abuse was at home with a family member as perpetrator.

While India’s numbers show a higher incidence rate, the two countries seem to share one thing in common – most elder abuse is at home, and is perpetrated by a family member.

Media reporting  in the US is  almost entirely about elder abuse in institutional settings. This is quite likely due to the hidden nature of the problem, which is best summed up by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations: “The distressing crime of elder abuse often occurs in quiet, private settings, making a vocal, public response that much more important. Let us strengthen our resolve to end this problem as part of our broader efforts to create a life of dignity for all.”

The hurdle in addressing elder abuse in family settings is two-fold: the seniors being abused are frozen into immobility – not only are they grappling with the fact of a family member abusing them, but in a majority of cases, the same family member is also whom they depend on and in danger of jeopardizing whatever care and assistance they get from them, hostage to a situation of ‘damned of they do and damned if they don’t.’  Other family members, as observers, the only potential ‘whistle-blowers’ may disengage for a variety of reasons – not recognizing the abuse for what it is, feelings of shame, lack of awareness/guidance how to address it, unavailability of community/social support, and not least, a legal framework that is geared to addressing elder abuse in institutional settings but which breaks down when applied to a private, family setting.