When I am delivering training to potential volunteers, I usually mention how the Adult Support and Protection (ASP) framework is similar to Child Protection, as I’ve found it helps them understand the concept. I then, however, have to backtrack when I clarify that an older person would not necessarily get as much protection if they do not fall within the remit of the ASP Act. They will only get protection under this Act if they are deemed to be ‘at risk of harm’ (taking into account a number of factors to determine their ‘vulnerability’). This is different from Child Protection where all children are within the remit of the protection framework, whether they are deemed vulnerable or not.  Society seems to accept that any child can be vulnerable, yet when it comes to older people, there seems to be a fear of infantilising them or not wanting to interfere. While we know that many older people are not vulnerable and require very little support to look after themselves, sadly, many can be vulnerable, but can be very reluctant to ask for help. Some older people may even try to put on a ‘brave face’ as they are fearful of the consequences of telling someone they are struggling, and therefore suffer in silence.

Why should this be and why can’t all older people have the benefit of legal protection from harm?

Stakeholders in Adult Protection would possibly cite two main reasons why child protection measures could not be applied to older adults:-

  1. From what age (and who should decide?) is an adult deemed to be ‘old’ and therefore in need of protection from harm or neglect? …65?.... 60? or even 50? We could all probably give examples of ‘young’ people in their 90’s or ‘old’ people in their 50’s!
  2. Suppose the older person with capacity does not want or consent to being protected from harm? Should the authorities be able to ignore this lack of consent and implement protection measures against their will? An example could be someone who is ready for discharge after a hospital admission who demands to return to live alone in the house that they have always lived in despite the risks?  If it was 90-year old person then the authorities would try to facilitate this. But if it was a 12-year-old then they wouldn’t.. 

So, children are given more protection from harm than older people but, though there may be legitimate reasons for this, it means that society should be more vigilant and sensitive to the potential for abuse of older people.

Perhaps part of the problem is the way in which society views older people.  Are we becoming ‘ageist’ – seeing older people as a burden, rather than a precious section of society who deserve our respect, support and protection?  I often see stories in the media about older people, portraying them in negative ways (e.g. bed blockers, draining health and social care services, etc), rather than seeing the positive aspects of living a long life. Does this in turn affect the way in which we treat them – seeing them as less deserving of support?

Part of the problem could also be a perception that elder abuse does not happen, or a refusal to believe that it happens. We often hear of older people reporting abuse, but no one believes them – often because people assume they are confused, or can’t comprehend that they could be harmed by their own family. There’s also the issue of most children being surrounded by adults on a daily basis, whether at school, nursery or at home. With the escalating problem of loneliness and social isolation among our older population, many older people literally have no one to talk to, and are less likely to have daily contact with others, especially if frailty or health problems are an issue. It can therefore be very difficult for them to speak up, as well as for others to pick up on the signs of harm, abuse or neglect.

Action on Elder Abuse knows that there is an urgent need to raise more awareness of the scourge of abuse of older people (particularly within families) and to do something about it. World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) on 15th June is one way of raising the profile of abuse, but ultimately, there needs to be a fundamental change in the attitude of society to understand that abuse of an older person is just as appalling and unacceptable as the abuse of a child.

Only when people really believe that elder abuse is wrong will we start to see an end to it.

If you or anyone you know, has concerns about any form of abuse of an older person, however small it may seem, call our free helpline for advice on:

 080 8808 8141

(open Monday to Friday 9-5)