M. Dinesh Varma

It's much more common than people admit, says international report

Harassment takes many forms, ranging from constant verbal abuse to outright physical assault

CHENNAI: Abuse of the elderly within the family is no longer a hushed up dark secret: numerous instances of harassment of senior citizens are coming to light of late.

However, a combination of fear, pressure to uphold the family name and a lack of awareness on where to turn for help results in many of the cases remaining hidden.

Physicians and counsellors who work with the victims believe that for every instance of abuse that is reported there are scores that never come to light. The harassment ranges from neglect and ill treatment to physical harm.

The World Health Organisation in association with the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA) is observing June 15 as the first ever "The First World Elder Abuse Awareness Day."

INPEA, co-author of the report Missing Voices (2002) with the World Health Organisation, states that "abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of elders are much more common than societies admit."

Help centre

Chennai-based Dignity Foundation (Helpline 26473165), a help centre for such abuse victims, receives an average of 10-15 complaints of abuse of elderly men and women by their own children.

"In 90 per cent of the cases, the acts of abuse can be traced to a property tussle," says Mary Rose Thomas, social worker at the Foundation.

Elders come under intense pressure to either sell off their property or transfer ownership to their sons or daughters and are subjected to various forms of abuse if they refuse.

The other common trigger for abuse is a preference among some to live off their parents' wealth.

In these cases, the elders are relentlessly pestered for money to support their son's or daughter's lifestyle.

Many forms

The harassment takes many forms, ranging from constant verbal abuse and threats to outright physical assault.

In at least two of the four cases of abuse reported in the last two weeks to Dignity Foundation, elders in the family had been subjected to assault.

"What is worrying is that the abuse is prevalent even in the well-educated strata," said Ms. Thomas.

A family friend of the victim usually tips off dignity Foundation about abuse; sometimes the victims themselves seek assistance.

The organisation, after studying the complaint, sends volunteers to the home of the victim. In many cases, counselling sessions with the victim and the abuser resolve the issue. In some instances, volunteers face a hostile environment and are refused negotiating space in what the abusers regard as a family issue. Police and legal assistance is sought when a situation turns complex.

The Foundation would like victims of abuse to know that help is available and to seek assistance instead of suffering in silence.

"Abuse of elders seems to be more prevalent in the urban population," said V.S. Natarajan, geriatrician and chairman, Senior Citizens' Bureau. Emotional abuse is the most common form of abuse, he said.

Chronic disabilities

Patients with chronic disabilities and those with mental disturbances like depression or dementia are most vulnerable to abuse at home, Dr. Natarajan said. Senior Citizens' Bureau is organising a community-based awareness programme for youth against elder abuse.

The campaign will feature a signature campaign led by its secretary-general M. Singaraja, lectures on elder abuse and formulation of joint strategies with other NGOs.