MY WIFE took a fall a couple of weeks ago and broke her arm. Badly. Painfully.
The next day she was zonked out on painkillers and desperately tired after a disturbed night in hospital so my daughter and I didn’t stay too long.
But as we left my daughter said something that has had me thinking ever since: “Golly, mum looked old and tired when we went in.’’
Since then I have been wondering just when do kids suddenly realise, suddenly accept, that their parents are getting on.
I tried to recall this milestone in my own life but as both my parents and my wife’s parents died relatively young this wasn’t something we had ever had to confront.
Our moments of grief are now decades behind us but in some ways we feel fortunate that we never had to come to terms with ageing parents.
One died badly but the suffering was relatively brief, we didn’t have the crushing financial and emotional responsibility of taking them under our roof, we only once had to suffer the agonies of putting a parent into the care of strangers, and we didn’t have to see them suffer the indignity of poverty and dependence. And, most of all, we didn’t have to put to the test our own love, respect and patience.
We didn’t have to risk those qualities turning into intolerance, impatience or contempt.
Yet it happens with awful regularity and will probably happen more frequently as life expectancy in Australia rises into the 80s.
I’m horrified, although not entirely surprised, by the incidence of institutional and domestic elder abuse in Australia.
Aged and Disability Advocacy Australia estimates about 10 per cent of older Australians experience abuse. But, that might be an understatement, depending on how you quantify abuse.
That abuse can be financial, legal, emotional or physical and can range from the subtle to the sadistic.
We are regularly shocked by stories of neglect and even physical and sexual abuse in residential homes where pennies are pinched and people are put on the modern equivalent of bread and water diets.
There, at least, we have the Australian Aged Care Quality Agency which, although it sometimes seems ineffectual, at least keeps some kind of watch over the aged and over those who turn a buck by caring for them. Not so well protected are those who live in the community, alone or with their families.
There they are prey to spivs and shysters, impatient families, greedy relatives and all the other parasites that hover around the weak and vulnerable.
We’re all aware of the more firstname.lastname@example.org overt forms of abuse, ranging from physical harm to financial bloodsucking. However, more subtle is the lack of respect, the patronising attitudes and the off-handed manner that sadly seem to be the reward for so many lives long lived.
It’s not always easy living with older people, many of whom are not nearly as warm and loveable as we like to think.
Some, quite frankly, are pains in the neck, demanding, overbearing and interfering. I’m working on being in all three of those categories. The scary thing is that so much that comes with old age – the good, the bad and the ugly – happens behind closed doors.
Fortunately, governments and their agencies are slowly becoming aware of the problem and are trying to prise open those doors.
Canberra and the states are working on nationally consistent laws to respond to elder abuse.
So far it sounds little more than a talkfest, with the plan being to “bring government and community stakeholders together to properly address the issue”.
Attorney-General Christian Porter says the plan’s key aims are promoting the autonomy and agency of older people; addressing ageism and promoting community understanding of elder abuse; achieving national consistency; safeguarding at-risk older people and improving responses; and building up the evidence basis.
Nobly said but back last year, when this first started to brew, then attorney-general George Brandis gave a whole $250,000 over two years to set up a peak coordination and advocacy body, Elder Abuse Action Australia.
That wouldn’t keep the parliamentary entitlements system ticking over for more than a few days.
It’s a start but we have a long way to go before elder abuse grabs our attention as child abuse did with such nationchanging results.
And, there are limitations to what governments can achieve because, as with child abuse, most elder abuse happens within the family.
It’s up to individuals to watch over their elderly neighbours and friends, and it is up to government to provide an adequate response when abuse is detected. Whether the elderly are alone, in care, or left to the mercy of family with all its frailties, abuse is a shabby and shameful reward at life’s end.