The European Commission’s Green Paper on Ageing has a blindspot—elder abuse.
On a continent which values union and equality, violent and abusive behaviour should have no place. Yet many older people experience abuse today in Europe—a blot on our shared values.
A more equal society would spare us the costs of abuse and help ensure older people can fully contribute to our communities. In this period of key European Union initiatives—such as the recent Social Summit and the Conference on the Future of Europe—we need to plan collectively for a future where elder abuse is a thing of the past.
A life-course approach suggests that our health is influenced by many factors throughout our lives. The European Commission decided to adopt such an approach in the Green Paper on Ageing, released towards the end of January.
The green paper rightly praises enhanced longevity as an achievement of our societies. It also recognises that ‘the traditional stages of education and training, work and retirement are becoming less rigidly defined and more flexible’.
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The document however misses the opportunity to redefine what being old in the EU could mean. It also passes up the chance to provide hints on how to realise the full potential of a life-course approach. For example, it largely disregards the critical role accessible environments and quality support services can play in enabling individuals to remain active participants in our communities.
Painful and damaging
More problematically, the green paper skips over the most painful and damaging life experiences. Abuse is mentioned only once, in relation to ‘vulnerable older people’, referring to the ‘importance of protecting their autonomy, as well as their health and living conditions’.
This overlooks how abuse affects life trajectories and weighs on society as a whole. While the commission elsewhere classifies violence against women and girls as ‘a violation of human rights’ and a problem whose scale is ‘alarming’, the Green Paper on Ageing fails to address a massive phenomenon.
One in six people aged over 60 suffer abuse. This rises to fully one in four among older people with high care needs.
Abuse has dramatic consequences for the health of individuals—and there can be socio-economic impacts too, including falling into poverty and social exclusion. At the societal level, it has serious and manifold ramifications for public health and care systems, as well as the economy.
Representing abuse as an issue only affecting the intrinsically vulnerable entails the unwitting implication that nothing can be done about its perpetration. But there is no reason for such fatalism.
Instead of looking at people experiencing abuse only as victims, we must see them as right holders, fully entitled to seek and receive protection and support. This applies to all victims of crime, including girls and women experiencing violence—and older people facing abuse or neglect.
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This brings us to focus on the risk factors—exacerbated by the pandemic—so as to minimise the chances for abuse to happen. Developing care and support services for older people and informal carers can weaken the triggers of elder abuse. Such services need to be adequately funded and the staff involved professionally trained to work with older people in need of care.
Within that, specific support services, such as are provided by the members of Victims Support Europe, are critical to help people get out of abusive situations. These are like rehabilitation after an accident: they offer the qualified personnel, with the appropriate methods and tools, users need to recover.
Equality and dignity
Older people are not however inherently vulnerable: rather, inadequate laws, policies, services and discriminatory mindsets create barriers to the enjoyment of equality and dignity in older age. We need to change these if we want to put an end to abuse.
On a continent where people live longer and longer, it is nonsensical to squander this growing asset, as AGE Platform Europe highlighted in our contribution to the green-paper process. All the above solutions—changing mindsets, acting on the risk factors, providing adequate services—are also essential to address the situations of older individuals experiencing abuse.
The EU has other levers too at its disposal:
- Since June 2020, the commission has been equipped with a first ever EU Strategy on Victims’ Rights (2020-2025). The document explicitly identifies older people as one of the groups in need of specific measures, to improve reporting and ensure support and protection.
- Late last year, the European Disability Forum, the European Public Service Union and AGE Platform Europe asked the European Parliament to put in place an inquiry into the tragic impacts of Covid-19 on residential care.
- If ambitiously implemented, the Action Plan stemming from the European Pillar of Social Rights and the announced policy initiative on long-term care in 2022 can help ensure the enjoyment of social rights in older age.
Any follow-up—still to be announced—to the Green Paper on Ageing will have to build synergies with these other instruments.
We cannot claim to build a ‘union of equality’ without addressing the risk factors for elder abuse. And the ‘old continent’ cannot prosper if it does not draw on the accumulating asset of its senior citizens.
We can all live long and free—and make society benefit. It is just a matter of paving the way for it.