Elder Abuse – Does it Exist?

A blog by Frances Zainoeddin, SI UN Representative, New York

“My name is Frances and I have been a Representative of SI to the United Nations in New York for a year, following mainly issues related to sustainable development and older persons.  I am also involved in efforts to elaborate an international legal instrument to protect the rights of older persons.

In 2011, the General Assembly of the United Nations designated 15 June as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD).  The fact that we need a special day to call attention to the existence of harmful practices against older persons is in itself a shameful indictment on society.

In the words of the World Health Organization (WHO), “elder abuse is a single or repeated act or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person”.  Regrettably, elder abuse exists, in all parts of the world.  There are many forms of elder abuse, which violates the dignity and human rights of the older person and decreases their quality of life.

  • Physical Abuse—inflicting physical pain or injury on an older person, e.g. slapping, bruising, or restraining by physical or chemical means.
  • Sexual Abuse—non-consensual sexual contact of any kind.
  • Neglect—the failure by those responsible to provide food, shelter, health care, or protection for a older person.
  • Exploitation—the illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets of an older person for someone else’s benefit.
  • Emotional Abuse—inflicting mental pain, anguish, or distress on an older person through verbal or nonverbal acts, e.g. humiliating, intimidating, or threatening.
  • Abandonment—desertion of an older person by anyone who has assumed the responsibility for care or custody of that person.

What is also tragic is that older persons are often ashamed to report on abuse, particularly when family members are involved.

According to WHO, in some cases, mistreatment of older persons may be part of a broader landscape of poverty, structural inequalities and other human rights abuses.  Data on violence against older women is a particular concern, as surveys are usually limited to ages 15-49 years. However, abuse and violence against women continue in older age, and the Commission on the Status of Women has recognized violence against older women as an urgent concern.  In some cultures, where women have inferior social status, older women are at special risk of being abandoned when they are widowed and having their property seized, and are subject to harmful practices such as widow-burning, discrimination and physical violence resulting from accusations of witchcraft.

The United Nations Open-ended Working Group on Ageing, established to consider an international legally binding instrument to protect and promote the rights of older persons will be holding its eighth session from 5-7 July 2017 to start considering possible elements that could be included in such an instrument, even though, at this stage, there is no decision on whether or not to start drafting an instrument.  The two issues to be discussed at that meeting will be (a) Equality and non-discrimination and (b) Neglect, violence and abuse.  Governments will need to recognize that elder abuse is a public health and social services issue.  They will also need to agree that interventions are needed to address and prevent elder abuse, such as provision of legal, financial and housing support, provision of public education and awareness campaigns, detection and treatment of victims.

We should all be asking:

  • Why are violence and abuse overlooked when the victim is over 60 years of age?
  • Why are older persons’ well-being given less attention?
  • Why is the violation of older persons’ rights ignored?
  • Why are older persons denied a life of dignity?


Being old should be a cause for celebration, not an opportunity for exploitation, mistreatment and neglect”.




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