Louise Southwell is a partner at Coodes Solicitors, specialising in elderly client law. She is a member of Solicitors for the Elderly and is also chair of Age UK Cornwall & Isles of Scilly.
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day takes place on 15 June each year, to raise awareness of the mistreatment of elderly people throughout the world.
Established by the UN, It represents the one day in the year when the whole world voices its opposition to the abuse and suffering that is inflicted on some of our older generations.
In Cornwall, elder abuse may be a bigger problem than we might think. We have more than 80,000 people living here aged 70 and older. This figure will continue to rise as life expectancies increase.
A combination of an aging population, with generations of families often living in different parts of the country, can lead to isolation and vulnerability amongst older people. These factors, together with a general lack of awareness or understanding about what constitutes abuse – be it financial, physical or psychological – can mean cases of abuse are hard to identify.
The charity Action on Elder Abuse has defined the issue 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’. This organisation has identified six types of elder abuse – physical, psychological, financial, neglect, sexual and even family abuse.
Under English law we have no legal definition of “elder abuse” and no specific legislation for protecting vulnerable people in their later years from abuse. However, we do have safeguarding legislation, which is central to protecting people in later life.
Research on the extent of elder abuse is very limited. A widely quoted figure of approximately half a million older people being abused in the UK at one time is derived from a UK national study carried out in 1992.
Abuse increases with age, isolation, lack of social networks, cognitive loss, mental health needs and frailty. Therefore the people who are most likely to be most at risk of abuse, through their inability to protect themselves from it, include people with severe dementia, mental health problems or other disabilities.
One way of ensuring that a loved one is safeguarded is by having a Lasting Power of Attorney in place. In this document the individual is able to choose the people to act on their behalf in the event that they are unable to act for themselves, due to either physical or mental incapacity. The Lasting Power of Attorney is in a prescribed form and there are legal requirements for its execution.
There are two types of Lasting Power of Attorney; one deals with property and affairs and the other with personal welfare.
A personal welfare Power enables an individual to choose somebody to make decisions regarding medical treatment, to include the authority to give or refuse life sustaining treatments. The property and affairs Power, as the name suggests, deals with financial matters such as access to your bank account etc. It is important that older people consider safeguarding their own independence and decision-making through this process, to ensure that they are less likely to suffer elder abuse in later life.
Alarmingly, it has been known for Power of Attorney for property and affairs to be held by an abuser themselves, allowing them greater access and control over the older person’s assets. It’s possible to include more than one person in a Power of Attorney, providing additional safeguarding against this.
Within my role at Age UK, we have found that by providing training and support to staff and volunteers more cases of abuse that would have gone undetected are now being reported. We believe that understanding how and why people are abused, whether deliberate or unintentional, is vital to our work. All staff members of Age UK Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and Coodes are aware of the barriers that people face in sharing their concerns about the way they are treated by relatives, friends and third parties, which is essential to responding effectively to an elderly person’s needs.
Should you, or anyone you know, be experiencing abuse, it is vital that you seek advice and guidance. Age UK Cornwall & Isles of Scilly have a helpline number, 01872 266388, and there is also a multi-agency Safeguarding Adults Unit based at Cornwall Council: 0300 1234 100.