Sep 12, 2017

The Abuse Victims Not on Our Radar and Here’s Why

If I told you that right now, while you read this article, 200,000 Australian women were being abused, bullied or kept in social isolation you’d be outraged. Correct? What about if a new report came out that the same number of children were being sexually abused both at home and in supposed safe institutions? Or if we read a news article that told us the same number of animals were being physically mistreated and left shaking in fear from those that “own” them?

Quite rightly, we’d all be angry, shocked and pretty in much in agreement that something needs to be done right away.

So, if I tell you that 200,000 is the estimated number of Australians aged over 65 that are subject to abuse, does it upset you as much as what I described above?

The reason I ask is that I had an interesting response during a conversation with a couple of young  professionals recently when talking to them about what I do for a job and using that as an opportunity to ask what they thought about abuse of older Australians. It was a bit of a reality check to be honest and for that I’m grateful.

One said that while she has enormous sympathy for anyone being subjected to abuse on any level, she believed many of her generation would struggle to put abuse of the elderly on their “personal outrage radar” like other causes and social issues such as violence against women, animal rights and child abuse.


Here’s her response: “I’m just being honest here. If you asked most people, older people just aren’t that nice to look at, and you know, there is probably a feeling that they are coming to the end of their life and while I personally feel we need to care for older people somehow, they do get a pension or free healthcare. Our resources can’t go on forever and are better focused on the future generations like children and women who have 30, 40 years of life ahead of them.”

Before you think the worst of her, she cares deeply about a lot of causes from what I can gather and works in an industry where empathy is paramount. I simply asked her to throw some light on why, in my experience, we as a society seem to be all care and no responsibility when it comes to fixing this growing elder abuse epidemic.

This despite numerous media reports and plenty of coverage, including in this newspaper, of shocking examples of physical, financial and sexual abuse. Cases of intimidation, threats and bullying.

I told her I appreciated her honesty. And I gave her some in return. I said up until three years ago, I felt much the same way.

Then something personal happened in our family. Elder abuse struck someone very close. I won’t go into all the details but suffice to say, the impact goes beyond just one victim. Relationships on many levels have been damaged and lost forever, the physical and emotional impact is always just a thought away, the feeling of helplessness and questions like “what more could I have done” come flooding back whenever a birthday, anniversary or other special family event comes onto the radar. Events that once bought joy and made memories are now missed with none of the past celebration.

I’ve often sat parked near the victim’s home. Wondering and thinking about what I could do to “rescue” her. Wondering what abuse was continuing behind those doors which are now closed to me. Wondering why she just didn’t want us to help. Trying to work out how she fell under the spell of the abuser to the extent that she became a victim of Stockholm syndrome. The abused siding with the abuser resulting in the willing helpers and other loved ones being pushed away.

It gnaws away at me that in a First World country like ours, the lucky country, with some of the best and brightest minds, with some of the most generous and compassionate people on earth at times of crisis we can’t even put an exact figure on the numbers being poked, isolated, slapped, yelled at, bullied, shamed and ripped off and told they should be dead. Like the victim in our family, how many have slipped under the radar and haven’t been the subject of any official report? There is still a lot happening behind closed doors and whether due to the fear of repercussions or ill-conceived shame and embarrassment, it remains hidden from society’s eyes.

There could be a reason for this too. And again it took the younger generation to shine a light on it. Apathy and priorities.

“I guess they are out of sight, out of mind for us,” replied the other young professional that joined our conversation. “I mean, I love my gran but maybe see her twice a year at birthdays and Christmas. She’s old and she has a carer and that seems fine from what my mum says. She really doesn’t know us when we are there but look, I care about her and should see her more but life takes over and I’m studying and working and …” she cut off at that point.

I asked them both what causes they did know and care about. “I’ve given to the RSPCA a couple of times. Once I volunteered to clean out the kennels but just don’t have the time now. Violence against women obviously,” one said.

“Same-sex marriage, any bullying of women and kids, suicide and yeah, I hate seeing any child abuse, so that rips at me. Nothing worse than seeing a beautiful little kid suffering. But I’m saving for a house now so … you know, I lend my voice to petitions where I can,” said the other.

Maybe as a society, we’ve decided that of the four really vulnerable groups that need protection – children, women, animals and the elderly – only three really resonate. Maybe the only causes that will grab the attention of the young are those that make a good Instagram shot. I hope we aren’t that shallow. All need our love, respect and protection.

This content was originally published in The Age

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