Address to the Breaking the Silence Hui

  • John Carter
Senior Citizens

Rau rangatira maa,

tenei te mihi ki a koutou i runga i te kaupapa o te ra.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Distinguished guests, greetings to you gathered here for this purpose today. Greetings once, twice, three times to you all.

It's my pleasure to be here today at such an important hui.

Age Concern Wairoa is to be commended for the on-going work they've been doing in this area. I wasn't here at the last hui in 2007, but from what I've learned about the event, it was an informative and moving day. I'm sure today will be just as successful.

When I came into Office a year ago, I decided focusing on three priorities would help me to make the biggest impact in my role as Minister for Senior Citizens.

I chose to focus on the employment of mature workers, changing attitudes about ageing and protecting the rights and interests of older people by raising awareness of elder abuse and neglect.

These priorities do not stand alone. When we value the skills and wisdom of our older workforce, we are viewing ageing as a positive part of life,  bringing value to our society. And when we value our older people, we are far less likely to neglect or abuse them.

Who are these "older people" we talk about? They are our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents, our neighbours, our family friends, and our kaumatua.

They are the people who shaped the world we've inherited.

For some of us though, we need more than reminders to value our older people.

We need to be told clearly and strongly when behaviour is Not OK. And that's what a big part of my role as Minister is - helping to protect the rights and interests of older people by raising awareness of elder abuse and neglect.

So what is abuse?

This is really important to talk about. Elder abuse and neglect can have devastating consequences for older people, and a huge amount of long-term effects on physical and mental health, finances, living arrangements and family/whanau/aiga relationships.

Talking about specific examples matters, because it's too easy for someone to deny or play down a situation. None of us ever want to think badly of those we love most - yet all the stats show the people most likely to abuse or neglect older people are their own family.

If the abuse happens to someone aged under 65, it's most likely to be from a son or daughter.

If the abuse happens to someone aged over 65, it's most likely to be a husband.

Elder Abuse Awareness Day is June 15 every year. This year a document, provided through Age Concern, gave examples of elder abuse.

It's not nice to read. But we need to read it.

We need to understand the many forms abuse and neglect can take so we can recognise those signs, and so we can do something about it. And sometimes, it takes reading about someone else's situation before we can admit that it's happened to us.

Abuse isn't just being pushed, shoved or hit. It's not always physical. It can be deceitful, manipulative, psychological, financial, emotional, verbal, difficult to pin down, and downright nasty.

Abuse is about taking advantage of someone who is vulnerable.

It's keeping an elderly parent with multiple care requirements at home because you don't want to erode their assets - your inheritance - by getting the proper level of care for them.

Abuse might be the son or daughter who turns up at home and needs cash, and guilt-trips a parent into ‘lending' them money - money that comes out of the elderly parent's pension and which means they can't pay the power bill next month.

It's neglect when a grandparent, who lived with the family and helped raise the grandchildren while the parents worked, is left alone and unsupported by her family when they move on.

It's abuse when a son or daughter goes into the house when their parent is in hospital to remove valuable items for "safe keeping" without asking their parent's permission. The parent comes home and thinks they've been robbed - and they have, but by their own family under the pretence of being looked after.

It's not just family members who commit abuse, and it doesn't just happen in the home. Elder abuse occurs in many different settings - including private homes, residential care settings and hospitals.

The Office for Senior Citizens and I have been working with District Health Boards to distribute the It's Not OK booklet. This booklet provides information about exactly what elder abuse is, how to spot it, and what to do about it.

It's really important people in professions such as social work are armed with this information, because we know older people are reluctant to speak out about abuse or neglect when it's happening.

This booklet will also be sent out to residential care providers, residents and their families, and people living in retirement villages.

We're providing information to Work and Income staff on elder abuse and neglect prevention and awareness.

Plus, we're working on ways to beef up New Zealanders' involvement in World Elder Abuse and Neglect Awareness Days in 2010 and 2011.

Working collaboratively will help us continue raising public awareness of the problem.  It will help us strengthen the work of the existing elder abuse services, and help us to work with other agencies to improve supports to older people at risk of abuse.

I encourage you here in Wairoa to take a copy of this booklet - or a few copies - and use it to raise awareness within your community of what elder abuse and neglect is, how to recognise the signs, and what to do about it.

Sometimes it's easier to hand a friend or loved one a booklet to read than it is to start a direct conversation. A booklet can even just be left somewhere for them to pick up.

It's really important we get this information out to communities because situations aren't cut and dry.

There are not always bruises or broken bones to see.

This is also why it's so important to keep in touch with older people in our communities. We need to notice when things change with them. We need to support our older friends and family when we suspect they're being mistreated.

So how do we know? The signs and symptoms of abuse can vary, and are not always easy to spot. One of the most common forms of elder abuse is financial abuse.

An older person you know might be suffering this sort of indignity if you notice:

  • A failure to meet financial obligations
  • Unusual banking withdrawals or ATM activity on behalf of an older person
  • Sudden or unexplained difficulty in paying bills
  • Not allowed to spend money without agreement of caregiver
  • Missing personal belongings.

We all know what symptoms of physical abuse look like - bruises, cuts, fear, depression, repeated falls. 

But the symptoms of psychological abuse can be harder to spot.

It's things like sadness, anxiety, withdrawal, waiting for the caregiver to respond to questions, avoiding eye contact, changes in appetite, difficulty sleeping or needing excessive sleep or  friends and family not being allowed to visit or talk to the older person.

An older person may become isolated from the community, social services, and even from other family members.

So what else can we do? I reckon we all have to make more of an effort with the older people in our lives.

We need to take the time to keep an eye on our elderly neighbours, to stop and share a few words when we meet on the street. We need to learn about the signs and symptoms of abuse I've just spoken about.

To learn to trust our gut when we feel something's not quite right and then take action.

Call Age Concern; they'll be able to put you on to the right people. Learn how to ask appropriate questions to give people an opening to ask for help, to say that things aren't OK.

And we need to keep talking about it, keep standing up to it, keep saying that's not OK. As we stand up in our communities and have these discussions at hui like this, we also need to take the time to appreciate and celebrate our older people.

We need to take the time to remember all the things they've done for us and for our country over the years.

Here in Wairoa, you are well supported by Age Concern. You are taking a stand against elder abuse and neglect, of saying it's not OK.

I commend you for all your hard work, and I urge you to continue to find ways to value and appreciate your region's older people. 

Together, we can make sure New Zealand society grows strong and prospers by valuing and respecting those who have given so much, and continue to give us so much.

Thank you.