You might be reading this question and thinking "surely people wouldn't commit crimes against the elderly because of a hate towards older people?" Current hate crimes in Scotland are crimes which are motivated by malice or ill will towards a social group on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or gender identity.  While there may be some people who display ill will or animosity towards older people, I can’t imagine this is widespread – after all, most of us will be older people ourselves one day.

The much bigger issue is that of perpetrators deliberately choosing their victims on the basis of their perceived vulnerability, rather than simply because of animosity towards them because of their age. This could include physical frailty or mental capacity, but could also include recent bereavement, loneliness or isolation. People who are believed to have committed hate crimes on the grounds of the above characteristics will have this taken into account as an aggravating factor when sentences are determined. Is there any reason why we shouldn’t be doing the same for those who deliberately target older people because of their actual or perceived vulnerability? I can’t think of any.

I recently worked with a family where the older lady was very frail, lonely and had terminal cancer. Her family told us that they believed that her carer knew she was very vulnerable, and therefore set out to ‘groom’ her, preying upon her need for friendship. The carer convinced her that she was more than just her carer – she was a dear friend who loved her. She persuaded her that she would be helping her by handling her finances for her, and shortly after she died, her family discovered that she had stolen almost £44,000 from her.

In this case, the carer was convicted of fraud and given a - I would say far too short - custodial sentence. If this had been treated as a hate crime in the same way as current hate crimes, the carer’s specific reasons for targeting the lady would have been taken into account as an aggravating factor, and the sentence likely to have been increased.  Not only does such a model ensure that justice is more appropriately served, but also sends a message to would-be perpetrators that society will not tolerate crimes against vulnerable older people. For those who do, punishment will be harsh. This prosecution model also takes account of the greater impact that harm, abuse or exploitation can have on older people, whether financial, physical or psychological for example, compared to younger adults.  

I was delighted to see that the Scottish Government are taking this issue seriously by including some of our proposals in their recent consultation on Lord Bracadale’s independent inquiry into hate crime. This posed a question on whether current hate crime legislation should be extended to other groups, with a new threshold to include the reasons for selecting a victim on the basis of a particular characteristic (ie. their actual or perceived vulnerability).  While our preference would be for elder abuse to become a specific criminal offence, if this is not legally practical in the Scottish legal framework, the introduction of a new aggravated hate crime on this basis would be a significant improvement on the current criminal justice framework.

We know that many older people are scared to speak up about harm, abuse or exploitation as they fear they won’t be believed or their claims won’t be taken seriously by the police or courts. Strengthening the criminal justice system in this way is likely to give victims more hope that justice will be served.  Creating an effective deterrent is the only way to ensure we can end the scourge of elder abuse.