Elderly abuse is an issue that has been discussed in the public sphere recently, with the Vulnerable Adults Bill being passed in Parliament in May this year, and scheduled to come into force by the end of the year.
Elderly abuse refers to the situation where caretakers of elderly people (often a family member) abuse their charges. This can come in various forms –
This is a pressing issue in need of much serious attention. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that only 4 per cent of elder abuse cases are reported. In Singapore, the number of reported elderly abuse cases rose from 145 in 2008 to 170 in 2011. From 2012 to 2016, an average of 200 cases were reported each year, according to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). If the WHO’s estimates are accurate, that means that an average of roughly 5,000 elderly people are being abused in Singapore every year, the vast majority of whom never get any justice.
Current solutions to combat elderly abuse
The only existing assistance specifically directed to elderly abuse is through social helplines, such as the Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence (PAVE) and ComCare. Eastern Health Alliance and South East Community Development Council also launched the Neighbours for Active Living programme in 2013 to train volunteers to care for vulnerable and elderly residents.
In addition, victims of elderly abuse can also seek recourse through legal avenues, such as filing a police report for abuse that amounts to a criminal offence, filing a magistrate’s complaint with the State Courts, and/or filing for a protection order against the abuser.
Problems with current solutions to combat elderly abuse
Many cases of elderly abuse go unreported because the victims may be too embarrassed to seek help. If their abusers are their children, they may not want to legal action that they believe may risk sending their children to prison. Furthermore, neighbours may be hesitant to report such acts even if they witness them happening because they may perceive it to be a private family matter that they should not interfere with.
On top of the problems associated with the reporting of such crimes, there are problems with the strength of the law in the prosecution of elderly abusers. While such crimes can still be prosecuted as crimes of “causing hurt”, “wrongful confinement”, “battery” or “fraud”, elderly abuse ought to attract harsher punishment. The law currently prescribes more severe punishment for violent crime when such acts are committed against vulnerable groups such as domestic helpers and racially or religiously motivated hate crimes. However, the elderly are not specifically identified in criminal legislation as a vulnerable group in society, in spite of their obvious vulnerabilities.
The introduction of the Vulnerable Adults Act
Cognisant of this mounting social problem, the Parliament passed the Vulnerable Adults Act in May. It is scheduled to come into force by the end of 2018. While elderly abuse is sometimes seen as more of a private family issue, there has been a recent push for the state to step in to intervene in such situations.
To this end, the MSF has proposed and Parliament has passed the Vulnerable Adults Bill, which aims to protect vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect or self-neglect, and to provide timely and effective interventions to prevent further abuse or neglect. These aims manifest themselves in the empowerment of agencies to enter any premises in which the vulnerable adult is living to assess the living conditions or to remove the vulnerable adult and place him/her in the care and protection of a competent person.
Why enact the Vulnerable Adults Act now? The simple answer is that there is an increasing need for such legislation because of Singapore’s ageing population. As such, it is timely to enact such laws to improve protection of Singapore’s elderly population. Further, by increasing criminal penalties for elder abuse, society sends a clear signal of its attitude towards such acts by putting these issues under the spotlight, dissuading the public from committing elderly abuse and encouraging people to point out such wrongful acts if they come across them.
Presently, there are still many cases of elderly abuse that go unreported but which require more attention from society.
The new Vulnerable Adults Act is definitely a step toward greater protection for the elderly in that it sets out a clear framework to target elderly abuse and also condemns such acts.
For now, if you come across an elderly person who shows signs of being abused, the recommended action is simple: 1. Make a police report; 2. Get them to pick up the phone and speak to a lawyer.