Thursday, June 14, 2007

Stand For Your Elders


Israel should have a good track record in its treatment of its senior population, for Judaism is demonstrative in its commandment to respect the elderly. In Leviticus 19:32, the Torah commands us to rise in the presence of an older person and honor the aged. Similarly, the fifth of the Ten Commandments is to honor our parents.

The success of the Pensioners' Party in Israel's past elections would also create the impression that our elders are cherished and respected members of Israeli society.

So does the Jewish state really need to commemorate World Elder-Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) on June 15 - established to help society "recognize and respond to the mistreatment of older people in whatever setting it occurs, so that the latter years of life will be free from abuse, neglect and exploitation."

Unfortunately, the simple answer is "yes." In over 30 years of working with elderly people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, but mostly the poor, I have seen horrifying cases of abuse. Sometimes the abuse is intentional; often it has come about through neglect that may be hard to label outright abuse.

ONE ELDERLY woman who comes to mind was bedridden, living in a damp stone house in one of Jerusalem's oldest neighborhoods. Her poor health and frail body made it difficult for her to hear and even harder for others to distinguish her mumbled words.

Her son and daughter-in-law were reluctant to move her to a retirement home because their elderly mother would have to sell her own home in order to pay for the care. They said she wished to remain in her home and leave it to them as an inheritance. So they tried to care for her as best they could, and Ezrat Avot eased the burden by bringing her easily-digestible hot meals daily.

When the winter winds chilled her room we gave her a radiator. During a visit a couple of weeks later our volunteer noticed that the radiator was missing. The daughter-in-law had taken it for herself (when confronted with the theft she returned it).

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines elder abuse as "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."

According to this definition (and basic ethics) the daughter-in-law in my example was guilty of abuse by stealing a possession necessary to keep her mother-in-law warm. But was keeping the old woman in her home until she passed away - soon afterwards - also an act of abuse? How can you gauge when concern is really abuse? And does anyone care?

A 2005 STUDY by Haifa University revealed that 18.4% of seniors in Israel were exposed to at least one type of abuse: physical or sexual violence (2%), verbal abuse (8.1%), limitations on freedom (2.7%) financial exploitation (6.6%); and a massive 25% suffered from neglect that led to a lack of food, hygiene and medical treatment. Sadly, most of this abuse or neglect was on the part of family members or caregivers.

If these statistics are not sufficiently shocking, a more recent survey by Haifa University of seniors admitted to Hadassah University Hospital, Jerusalem and Rambam Hospital, Haifa, revealed that 26.5 % reported that they had been abused, or were deemed by hospital staff to have suffered abuse.

The physical and/or mental vulnerability of the aged puts them at risk in the first place and makes it difficult for them to report abuse.

The International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, in its promotion of an Elder-Abuse Awareness Day states that "empowering older persons is the most effective tool in the response to elder abuse."

Abridged >>

The writer, a past recipient of the Ministry of Welfare Award for Volunteerism, is co-founder and director of Ezrat Avot. or

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