By Giovanni Zambello, IFRC, and Natasa Todorović, Red Cross of Serbia
Whereas the issue of domestic violence and abuse against women and children within families is not new in Europe, when it comes to the ill-treatment of elderly people we face significant lack of official statistical data. In some European countries, such as Belgium, the phenomenon of abuse against older people was 'discovered' only in the 1990s, when the academic community began to show interest in the problem, while in others it is still a taboo.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between four and six per cent of older people have experienced some form of abuse in their own homes, ranging from physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, to financial exploitation, neglect, and abandonment.
These attitudes and behaviours seem to be rooted in a perception of older people as having less capacity, less competence and less dignity than others, and such a negative image is often reflected in the way language is used to describe them; words such as useless, burden, frail, and incapable, to name just a few.
In the Republic of Serbia, which has one of the oldest populations in Europe – with 15.4 per cent being above 65 – the Red Cross of Serbia has developed its Home Care programme, working on sensitising and educating volunteers and the general public about this kind of discrimination and abuse.
One of the most active municipal branches in this regard is the Red Cross of Kragujevac, where 13 older volunteers work on a telephone helpline to assist their vulnerable peers and neighbours in solving many of the problems they may encounter including issues of health care, welfare, poverty and abuse.
Svetlana Atanasković, a 73-year-old volunteer, told us about the case she was involved in. A 70-year-old retired teacher, had all of her possessions – including her apartment – sold by relatives, who promised to use the part of the money to take care of her. However, she was alone in a damp and dank room with only a very modest pension that could barely pay the rent. Her health and eyesite deteriorated quickly, and she was 80 per cent blind in just few months.
After a while, she contacted the municipal Red Cross branch. Svetlana informed the woman about her legal rights, assisted her with producing a health ID, and finally managed to find her a vacancy in a nursing home, which her relatives agreed to pay for.
The woman is now satisfied, living in a nursing home with her relatives visiting her and taking her home during religious holidays. Ms. Atanasković is also still in touch, ensuring she is looked after and content.
Because of their access to cases like this, home helps, nurses and volunteers like Ms. Atanasković are often the only people older patients can turn to if they experience abuse within the family. In order for them to fully understand this phenomenon, health and social service professionals need to have training on how to approach vulnerable older people and detect signals of domestic violence, as well as to which steps to take after identifying such a situation.
Having a pool of trained volunteers with such skills is one of the main goals of 'Breaking the taboo', a European Commission co-funded project coordinated by the Austrian Red Cross and with the participation of the Bulgarian Red Cross among the main partners. The overall aim of the project is to empower health and social service professionals to combat violence against older women within families.
In the months of September and October 2011, 14 trial workshops combining elements of health care and violence prevention were carried out in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Portugal and Slovenia.