Domestic abuse is an appalling scourge which has affected men, women and children of all ages across the world for generations. It can include single incidents of physical, sexual, psychological or financial abuse, as well as longer-term patterns of harm or abuse, including coercive, controlling or threatening behaviour.

New legislation introduced in Scotland earlier this year was hailed by many as the ‘gold standard’ for domestic abuse legislation, by incorporating both emotional and physical violence into the same offence. This is a welcome measure as a means of reflecting a growing understanding that domestic abuse is often a pattern of behaviour over a period of time, and includes more than just physical abuse.

However, this new legislation has one major omission – the definition of domestic abuse only extends to relationships between partners and ex-partners, not other family members. We estimate that 65% of elder abuse is committed by other people who have a relationship of trust with the older person. Other family members (primarily their children, but also grandchildren, siblings or nieces/nephews) account for the largest group at 33%, but we also know that carers, friends and neighbours or acquaintances can harm, abuse or neglect older people.

This is a huge gap in protection for older victims of domestic abuse. Why should abuse at the hand of a violent son be treated any differently from abuse at the hands of a violent partner? The bruises are the same, the impact is the same, and the fear is the same, so why should the way in which these horrendous crimes are treated be different?

I think there is a danger that if domestic abuse continues to be defined in this narrow way, public perception will believe that abuse by other family members doesn’t happen. This is compounded by the fact that so few older people speak up about it, either because they feel ashamed (especially if their own children are the abuser), they are terrified of the consequences, or they feel they won’t be believed. One of the very real consequences for some older people is that if they do report that a family member is abusing them, they may be desperately lonely.  What if your children or grandchildren were the only people you ever spoke to? It is an unfortunate reality that some older people are so lonely they would rather experience harm or abuse than be on their own.

We also know that very few cases of elder abuse result in prosecution, either because they are not reported or they are not acted upon. Of those that are, the majority result in cautions or deferred sentences rather than prosecutions. The new domestic abuse legislation had the potential to be a massive step forward in encouraging older victims to speak up as it could offer hope that justice could be served. Instead, there’s now a growing perception that the harm and abuse of older people is not as serious as that experienced by younger adults or children. This cannot continue.

That’s why we are continuing to push for the definition of domestic abuse to be widened, and strongly support barrister Alex Ruck Keene’s proposed ‘proximity abuse’ definition, which would include:

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members or who are in close physical or emotional proximity, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.   

This definition would therefore reflect the fact that physical, sexual, psychological, financial or any other form of abuse experienced by older people is the same, regardless of whether it’s committed by a partner or someone else close to them, and crucially, offer the same degree of protection.

With an ageing population, incidents of elder abuse are a growing problem across Scotland.  We must do more to ensure the battle to end it is given the priority it deserves.