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The holiday season – a time to see, hear and love

15 December 2016

The buzz in the room was overwhelming. It was the dreaded 14h00 graveyard session of a late November workshop for the evaluation of the Older Persons’ Act. I was astounded by the energy and enthusiasm of the discussion. They just could not stop talking, and if I allowed them, they would have continued for an hour. I asked them a simple question: “Tell the person next to you what you would like to achieve or do before you turn 60” – the Bucket List.

2063575447_1069451d42_bGetting ready for fun in the sun

This workshop had to take place before the South-African December shut-down. Fun in the sun, beach sand between the toes, the smells and sounds of a leisurely bushveld braai at sunset – this is what the holiday season is about for many South Africans. A well-deserved rest, catching up with friends, doing the things you didn’t have time for during the year.

December is also the month of 16 days of no violence against women and children. The shocking statistics (1 in 3 South African children experience some form of sexual abuse by the time they are 17) pierce the exuberance of the lighthearted holiday spirit, warmth of family reunions, and noisy late-night parties. Rightly so, we are horrified when we hear about violence against children and women.

Women over 49 are invisible

The picture most of us have in our heads about violence against women is of a younger woman. In reality violence against women (VAW) does not stop at age 49. Why 49? Most studies and statistics on VAW focus on the 15 to 49 age group. This means that, in many cases, there simply is no data on the abuse of “older” women. Effectively this makes VAW for older women invisible, as if it does not exist.

In South Africa, 60 is the age where you become an “older person”. Concern with elder abuse has been highlighted globally, yet only 17% of 133 countries collect data on elder abuse. This is particularly troublesome, when one considers the trend in some countries that older women are more prone to all abuse, including sexual abuse, because of their increased vulnerability.

Under apartheid the majority was alienated

We are easily, and rightly so, outraged by sexual abuse, because it is an intimate form of violence, and a serious infringement of human rights, which often has deep and long-lasting devastating impact on an individual. For older persons, sexual abuse is only one form of abuse that they are subjected to. Depending on the source, there are five to ten forms of elder abuse, some which are very overt, and others which are deceptively subtle – all of which violate their human rights.

Treating a person, or for that matter an entire group of persons, as if they do not exist, is a human rights infringement. This is in effect what Apartheid inflicted on the majority of the population, and today we recognize that the alienation of the majority through the apartheid system was intolerable and inexcusable.

Be kind to an “alien”

Why then, are many of us dispassionate when older persons are ignored, overlooked and depersonalized? Often, in the festive season, the loneliness and isolation of older persons are even more pronounced than during the course of the year. Tucked away in their homes and care facilities, they are forgotten. Alienated in an impatient, fast-changing, youth-obsessed world.

The festive season is a good time to be kind to an older person. Random kindness is in order if you have no older person in your immediate circle. Neuroscience tells us that people thrive when they are “seen, heard and loved”. Take a few moments, smile, talk to an older person. Be interested, ask them about their life, their needs. Help where you can, and make sure that they know they matter. You may be surprised at what you will get out of this engagement.

And remember, you too are approaching the 60-mark, and faster than you can imagine – so make that Bucket List!


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Sectors: Gender, Human Rights.

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