To Confront Elder Abuse, We Have to Confront Ageism

How can a grandson plot to steal the last of grandma’s savings? How can a daughter leave her frail mother tied to the bed while she is at work all day? How can neighbors say and do nothing when they notice the bruises on Mrs. Schwartz’ arms? How can friends not investigate when Sally hasn’t shown up for lunch at the senior center for over a week now? It all sounds so unconscionable, and yet it happens far too frequently. What, one has to wonder, allows someone to perform these atrocious acts? After all, these are not strangers; they are family and friends.

The New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA) announced today that the agency will launch a city-wide campaign to raise awareness about elder abuse – a form of abuse that involves victimization of an older person by a loved one – and to encourage all New Yorkers to report suspected abuse to 311.  This is a great step towards confronting one of society’s greatest moral crimes. However, we cannot confront elder abuse without also confronting age discrimination.

Ageism and Elder AbuseJust as racism is the underlying systemic cause of the injustices suffered by people of color, and just as sexism is the underlying systemic cause of the injustices suffered by women (rape is a big one here), ageism is one of the main underlying causes of elder abuse. Elder abuse is made easier when we look at the old people in our society as being “other” than us. After all, if they are not us, it is easier to allow ourselves to be blind to the humanity of the oldest and most vulnerable among us.

Ageism may not be the sole cause of elder abuse, but it sure does make elder abuse easier to justify Living in an age segregated society that worships youth, it is not that difficult to make the connection between ageism and elder abuse. After all, if old people are not considered part of our world of humanity, they are dehumanized. “Why do they have to use the subway when they are so slow climbing the stairs; don’t they have any consideration for the rest of us?” “They are such a burden on society.” “Why would grandma need her money anyway? She’s only going to die soon, so we may as well put that money to use now. Why wait?

We are all aging from the moment we are born, and we seem to accept this reality until we become old ourselves. Once someone is classified as old, they are no longer like us. After all, we are young; they are old. They are no longer relevant to our ever-growing and changing society. They are finished contributing to our culture; they are now living off our culture. All they do is take while the rest of us are constantly giving. But, what can an old person really give to a society, especially when they stop adding to our gross national profit? (Which they really never do as long as we understand healthcare is a commodity.)

I also suggest that as families live further and further apart, the young are not always privileged to have the first-hand experience seeing the aging process at work. When the call comes that grandpa, who lives 500 miles away, fell and broke his hip, we are surprised. Our mind’s picture of grandpa is of the strong athletic old guy who taught us how to throw a ball when we were 7 years old. We haven’t allowed ourselves to see him as he really is, no different than the ancient old man who lives upstairs from us who can’t take care of himself. We would really rather not think of OUR grandfather or father as being one of them…those old people. Once grandma and grandpa, or mom and dad for that matter, show signs of ageing, we’re outta’ there. It’s too frightening for us to identify with these old people. “I’m never going to be like that!” Yet, if we are lucky, we will all be as old as grandpa some day.

Why is it necessary to address ageism while we fight elder abuse? Here’s a story that best illustrates the answer.

THE STORY OF THE RIVER

Once upon a time there was a small village on the edge of a river. The people there were good and life in the village was good.

One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The people of the village gathered around. The cleaned and fed the baby and made him a cradle so she would be comfortable.

The next day this same villager noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. Again the villagers gathered around. They cleaned and fed these 2 new babies and made them cradles so they would be warm and comfortable.

The following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more, and still more!

The villagers organized themselves quickly, setting up watchtowers and training teams of swimmers who could resist the swift waters and rescue babies. Rescue squads were soon working 24 hours a day. And each day the number of helpless babies floating down the river increased. The villagers organized themselves efficiently. The rescue squads were now rescuing many children each day. The villagers felt very proud of what they were doing to save the lives of all the babies floating down the river. Indeed, the village priest blessed them in their good work. And life in the village continued on that basis.

The entire village was now dedicated to saving the babies.

One day, the leader of the village suggested that perhaps they should go up river to see where the babies were coming from. “How can we do that?”, cried the villagers, for now there was not one person in the village who was not involved with rescuing and caring for the babies. “If we don’t find out why the babies are floating down the river, we will soon become unable to rescue all the babies, and some of them will surely drown.”

The villagers realized that their leader was right. And, so, they took one villager from each team of baby rescuers to organize an expedition upstream to find out where the babies were coming from.

This is what organizing and social action is about…Not only to provide hands on help to those in need, but to find out what the systemic cause of the problem is. The Radical Age Movement believes that AGEISM is a major root cause of the elder abuse that so many older adults in our communities are faced with. If we really want to ameliorate elder abuse, it is our job to go “up the river” and eliminate the excessive ageism that is endemic to our culture.

Alice Fisher, M.A., M.S.W.
April 22, 2016

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