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Raising Awareness about Elder Abuse as a Human Rights Issue

Lisa Nerenberg - October 02, 2017 11:00 AM

On June 15, 2017,  groups around the world observed World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) with events ranging from government proclamations, to picnics, rallies, and professional forums. Since 2006, when it was launched by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA), the event has shined a light on how elder abuse is viewed around the world.

Americans have tended to view elder abuse as conflicts between individuals. Our public policy and programs focus primarily on individual victims who are physically assaulted, financially exploited, abandoned, or neglected by family members who are acting out of greed, malice, mental health problems, or, in the case of neglect, by caregivers who lack the resources, skills, or desire to provide care. Depending on who you talk to, abuse and neglect are viewed as crimes, the flip-side of child abuse, a caregiving issue, a form of domestic violence, or a medical syndrome. It has not typically been viewed as a matter of human rights and justice.

That isn’t the case in many countries, which WEAAD shows us. In 2017, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the theme for the year as “Understand and End Financial Abuse of Older People: A Human Rights Issue,” which underscores how financial and material exploitation can lead to poverty, hunger, homelessness, compromised health and well-being, and death. INPEA and HelpAge International, a U.K.-based nonprofit,  co-sponsored Ageism and Widowhood, a forum calling attention to the link between ageism and discrimination against widows.

HelpAge International released “Entitled to the Same Rights” on WEAAD, a report describing the views of 250 older women in 19 countries about discrimination, equality, violence, abuse, and neglect.  The women, who reflect diverse social and economic circumstances, describe discrimination in employment, healthcare, financial services, access to development programs, and in property ownership. A woman from Nepal explained how, “My in-laws and society started to discriminate against me after the death of my husband. They took my husband’s land and property and compelled me to leave my village.” A Nigerian woman noted discrimination in development programs: “We are prohibited from getting credit or micro-finance because we are older women. They believe we are too old and might die any time. Are younger people not dying too?”

Some noted that discriminatory, ageist attitudes and practices were particularly strong against widowed or single older women, those with disabilities, those in rural areas, and migrant older women. A Kyrgyzstani woman said “Older women with disabilities...may be subjected to any kind of violence” and woman from Nepal observed “My illiteracy is making me more vulnerable towards violence, abuse and discrimination.”

Americans too are beginning to frame elder abuse in the broader context of human rights, acknowledging how ageism heightens vulnerability and how its impact is compounded by other forms of discrimination.

Here in California, the California Elder Justice Coalition, a network of 72 agencies, coalitions, and individuals, took advantage of WEAAD to issue its Principles of Elder Justice. While “the right to live free from abuse, neglect, and exploitation” tops the list, other principles assert the right to legal aid and advocacy, services that promote autonomy and independence, equity in the allocation of resources, protection for those with cognitive impairments, and support for family caregivers and direct service workers that acknowledges their needs and the true value of their contributions.

Although WEAAD 2017 has come and gone, the direction and inspiration it offers will serve us well throughout the year.

For more:
Entitled to the Same Right
CEJC’s "Principles of Elder Justice"
The International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse

Lisa Nerenberg is the Executive Director of the California Elder Justice Coalition, which was formed in 2009 to provide a voice from the field in elder justice public policy development. She is an instructor of gerontology, elder abuse, and ageism at City College Of San Francisco and consultant to local, state and national organizations. She was the founding director of the San Francisco Consortium for Elder Abuse Prevention. Her book, Elder Abuse Prevention: Emerging Trends and Promising Strategies describes what agencies, communities, tribes, states, and national organizations can do to prevent abuse, treat its effects, and ensure justice


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