Wednesday

8th Feb 2023

Opinion

The fate of Europe's elderly under Covid-19 lockdown

  • Shortages in the healthcare sector and the isolation of older people from potential witnesses have increased the risk of abuse. UK data suggests an increase of 37 percent in the number of cases (Photo: Leaf)

The Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted older people across Europe. The virus itself has had more severe outcomes for people in older age and the containment measures have often resulted in the de-prioritisation of older people.

The abandonment of older people goes beyond a few care settings in Italy, Germany or Spain.

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If half of European Covid-19-related deaths happened in care facilities, it is largely the result of a long-term suffocation of the sector and a lack of consideration from political leaders to imagine and design the world we want to age in.

The world we currently age in is a world where the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, suggests that older people keep self-isolating until a vaccine is found.

It is a world where policymakers have directed emergency funds to hospitals but have once again forgotten social care. It is a world where many older people spent the lockdown alone, sometimes without access to basic goods and services.

This is a world that indirectly let abuse and maltreatment of older persons sneak in.

Before the pandemic, maltreatment was the cause of 2,500 homicides of older people in Europe.

If the Covid-19 brought to the fore extreme cases of older people dying abandoned in care homes, elder abuse was already a reality for one-in-four older people with high-care needs.

2,500 maltreatment deaths per year

In Europe, 2,500 older people die every year as a consequence of maltreatment.

And that is only the tip of the iceberg: it is estimated that only 1-in-24 cases are reported. Because of unchallenged ageism, which portrays older adults as vulnerable and of lesser value, older persons struggle to access protection and justice.

Far too many feel ashamed of the abuse they experience – which can be physical, psychological, sexual or financial, or the result of neglect.

Many believe their situations are inevitable or normal. Those who do report or seek support are likely to be taken less seriously than younger individuals by police or justice systems.

Offenders are most often those supposed to have a relationship of trust with the person they abuse. Among them prominently figure relatives providing care or professionals who are both often over-burdened or untrained.

The precariousness of care systems for older people is therefore closely related to the reality of abuse.

Lockdown only aggravates already existing challenges

Data is still largely missing to understand the impacts of Covid-19-related measures.

What we know is that shortages in the healthcare sector and the isolation of older people from potential witnesses have increased the risk of abuse. UK data suggests an increase of 37 percent in the number of cases.

The lockdowns have sealed even further the closed doors behind which abuse, violence and neglect occur.

In care facilities, older people have been confronted, more than ever before, with shortages in staff and lack of proper prevention and investments.

The pandemic has only aggravated existing problems. Responses cannot be contextual and must address the root causes of elder abuse.

Just as violence against women ensues from sexism, elder abuse is the result of ageism

What if we started to count the number of people experiencing domestic violence in older age? What if older people were taken seriously when they report abuse?

What if, instead of picturing older people as vulnerable, we provided survivors of abuse with the opportunity to seek justice and regain their dignity?

Elder abuse is the most harmful expression of ageism. And we won't address it unless we look into the institutionalised stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination that we hold against people because of their age. Ageism is both the stage background of elder abuse and the curtain that prevents us to challenge it.

'Ageism is abuse'

"An ageist society is an abusive society", once said a member of AGE Platform Europe.

If care services have grown precarious for decades and older people in need of care are dying in tragically big numbers in this pandemic, it is because they have existed outside the collective imaginary.

If older people experiencing abuse feel powerless and accept it as a fatality, it is because society and institutions project those ideas on them.

Any policy addressing elder abuse as an isolated or contextual phenomenon, disconnected from structural inequality due to older age, is doomed to fail. The same way that addressing gender-based violence without dealing with structural gender inequalities would be inadequate and insufficient.

It is only by restoring a society founded on age equality that we may ensure older people – including our older selves – a life in dignity.

Academics, human rights experts and NGOs have warned for a long time about the need to think of alternatives to this world. This pandemic offers a great opportunity to take this up as a collective challenge.

Author bio

Estelle Huchet is campaigns and project officer at AGE Platform Europe, the NGO network representing the 200 million EU citizens aged 50+, where Borja Arrue-Astrain works as coordinator for the task force on dignified ageing.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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