“A society that does not value its older people denies its roots and endangers its future. Let us strive to enhance their capacity to support themselves for as long as possible and, when they cannot do so anymore, to care for them.” ~ Nelson Mandela in a message announcing 1999 as the United Nations International Year of Older Persons, 17 December 1998 #InternationalDayOfOlderPersons
Three loaded words: dignity, vulnerability, abuse – what is the connection?
Our rights are protected by local legislation and structures that link up with international human rights frameworks, treaties and conventions. In South Africa, the Chapter 2 of the Constitution contains the Bill of Rights which applies to everyone who lives in South Africa. These rights are comprehensive and include the right to equality, human dignity, as well as access to information, adequate housing, sufficient food and water, health care services, social security and adult education. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights is truly something to be proud of. A comprehensive set of laws and strategies which give effect to these constitutional rights exist, for example, the Older Persons Act, the Mental Health Act, the National Disability Strategy and the Gender Mainstreaming Strategy.
These rights apply to men and women of all ages, irrespective of their level of functionality. This means that older men and women have the same rights as anyone else. Disabled men and women have the same rights as anyone else. Men and women who suffer from mental illness have the same rights as anyone else.
Being older, disabled, mentally ill or poor does not mean that a person has less value, or deserve less respect. It does, however mean that a person may be more vulnerable, and may need more support, protection and care. It also, unfortunately means that men and women who are vulnerable because of any one or combination of the following – age, level of ability, health status, economic position, geographical location – may not be able to claim their rights. Men and women who are vulnerable need assistance to claim their rights. The question is whether the required assistance is forthcoming as and when those who are vulnerable need it. If vulnerable men and women do not receive the support, protection and care they require to realise their hard-won constitutional rights, the scenario becomes one where the primitive law known as “survival of the fittest” applies.
A “survival of the fittest” situation implies relations of power, where those who are stronger have power over others, and use that power to their own benefit and to the detriment of others. In nature and sports dominance in the form of a “win-lose” game is required to ensure survival and victory. In a rights-based society, it is an implicit expectation that there will be tolerance for the rights of others, and that a concerted effort will be made to create a society where the rights of all can be realised, also through collaborative efforts where vulnerable groups are assisted.
It is generally accepted, for example, that children, who are not fully able to claim their rights on their own, must be assisted and supported to claim their rights. Similarly, older men and women also needs assistance to claim their rights. In many instances, older men and women do not receive such assistance and support. The sad reality is that vulnerable older men and women are at risk of being neglected and abused.
The words “neglected” and “abused” are emotionally charged, and often conjures up images of a physically abused, dishevelled, weather-worn person in torn clothing, living in dismal circumstances. This is a stereotype. Stereotypes are problematic on various levels, including that they tend to obscure the complexity and nuances. Irrespective of now unsettling a mental or visual image of a physically abused older man or women may be, it could be necessary to suspend that image for a moment to be able to see and understand the true nature of elder abuse.
The four forms of abuse are:
All four forms of abuse take place in our society, often on a daily basis.
Many people have attitudes and hold views regarding older persons that may be a breeding ground for disrespect and even abuse. Think about statements that insult, humiliate or berate older persons, name-calling and names used for older persons. Think about actions that tells an older person that they do not matter, for example, by excluding them, by not respecting their privacy, not considering their level of functionality, or compromising the security of an older person.
A related concerning factor is the apparent limited understanding amongst the general population of how ageing affects human beings – physically, psychologically and mentally. Age-related disability is a stark reality of older persons. According to StatsSA’s Disability Profile derived from the 2011 Census shows a positive correlation between disability and old age. By age 60, only 18.7% of the population has some form of disability. This figure increases significantly as people age, to the extent that 53.2% of people have some form of disability.
Disability refers to both physical and mental disability, and age-related mental disability is an uncomfortable and misunderstood reality that society often does not know how to respond to. With increased emphasis on de-institutionalisation of care, more disabled older men and women will live in communities. For them to realise their rights would require that their immediate families and communities understand their condition, limitations and needs. This, however, may not happen. Lack of understanding of the ageing process could lead to intolerance and even threats to older persons. For example, older persons suffering from Dementia or Alzheimer’s may be accused of witchcraft, instead of being supported or being assisted to access appropriate care.
The population of older persons in South Africa is gradually increasing, and this, together with the apparent weak societal understanding of and tolerance for older men and women and their diverse needs, calls for dedicated efforts to promote the rights of older persons in our country. While government, Chapter 9 Institutions and Non-Government Organisations all have a responsibility in this regard, every ordinary person living in this country similarly have a responsibility to ensure that they actively work towards the ideal of honouring every man and woman’s rights, irrespective of age, functional ability and economic status. Bold acts of respect for human rights and visible compassion for vulnerable groups such as older persons can save us from a scenario where only the proverbial “fittest” can claim their right to dignity and respect.
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