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Age Concern expert says euthanasia may devalue the lives of older people

10% of older people in New Zealand experience some form of abuse, according to Age Concern professional educator on elder abuse and neglect, Hanny Naus. Age Concern see a wide range of older people who are abused, with 4 out of 5 of them being abused by family members. 

In an interview with RNZ’s Jessie Mulligan for Elder Abuse Awareness Week (15–22 June), Ms Naus said, “People automatically think this happens in a terrible rest home, but the reality is that within our families, the possibility of being abused by family members is much greater.”

Financial abuse is present in half the cases Age Concern see. Usually the abuse starts quite small. “Next thing, family members are using all the money to supplement their own needs rather than caring for the needs of the older person.” 

The University of Auckland also published a study in the New Zealand Medical Journal this year which found that older people are more likely to self-harm due to physical illnesses. Senior lecturer in psychiatry, Dr Gary Cheung, said the study showed a need for specific suicide prevention strategies for older people. “Loneliness and isolation are significant factors,” Ms Naus said.

Speaking about David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill Ms Naus said, “Certainly, one of the issues around euthanasia is whether people’s life is of value. When it comes to elder abuse particularly, often the psychological threat that sits below it is that older people have no value – and so when it comes to euthanasia, from an elder abuse point of view, we would certainly argue that anybody’s life has value.”

Barrister, Grant Illingworth QC, who appears in several #DefendNZ documentaries this year, certainly echoes Naus in his assessment of the risks a euthanasia bill could create, “There are many good people who would never think of destructively influencing another person, but there is also a group of people who are really willing to do almost anything to get money, or to abuse. And once a vulnerable person comes under the manipulative control of another, it’s almost impossible to distinguish between whether that person is exercising free will or not. 

“Believing that doctors will always be able to tell whether or not someone is making a free choice is a mistake,” Illingworth argues. “Doctors are fallible, just like any other human being.”

#DefendNZ are concerned that any euthanasia or assisted suicide Bill would make older people more vulnerable and less supported. They urge MPs to vote ‘no’ to the End of Life Choice Bill and in doing so protect older and vulnerable New Zealanders.

The Office for Seniors NZ, a Government Department, have posted this video on social media this month.

A full transcript of this source audio file is available below:

Jesse Mulligan: Saturday marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Hanny Naus is an elder abuse educator with Age Concern and joins me now in the Wellington studio. Hi there?

Hanny Naus: Kia ora.

Jesse Mulligan: Kia ora, Hane. Thank you for coming in.

Hanny Naus: It's great to be here. It’s a privilege to be on your show.

Jesse Mulligan: What exactly does that term ‘elder abuse’ cover?

Hanny Naus: It covers any type of harm or distress caused to an older person, but by a person or an organisation that they trust.

Jesse Mulligan: OK. Intentional and unintentional harm?

Hanny Naus: Intentional and unintentional, but often it's under the radar and often it starts off very small and subliminally becomes a bigger, a major issue.

Jesse Mulligan: How major an issue is it?

Hanny Naus: A major issue for up to 10% of older people experience some form of abuse in New Zealand and that's a general statistic that occurs in other countries as well.

Jesse Mulligan: And who are likely to be perpetrating the abuse?

Hanny Naus: Age Concern sees a whole range of people who are abused and of those, four out of five are actually family members who are abusing them. Age Concern sees obviously most of the abuse that happens in the community and some abuse that happens inside of resthome  situations. But the majority of the abuse that Age Concern sees is perpetrated by family members. People automatically think, “Well, that happens in a terrible resthome.”But the reality is that within our families, even when older people are not living with their families, the possibility of being abused by their family members is much greater.

Jesse Mulligan: And like a child they can be particularly vulnerable, right, and powerless?

Hanny Naus: Certainly vulnerable but also powerless. And also the possibility of if they speak up then they lose any contact with their family. And for most older people the younger generations are the most important people in their family and the ones who are going to be able to care for them and support them. So they’re very unlikely to want to speak up about the elder abuse if it’s going to be part of being threatened to no longer have contact with the family.

Jesse Mulligan: What might abuse look like, Hanny?

Hanny Naus: Usually it starts off very small. It might be, “You know, we’re short. We need a little bit of money to carry us through”. Or something bad has happened in the family, there’s a family break-up and obviously older people are the ones that we go to, because they’re the ones that have loved us all our lives and they’re the ones that have stood up for us when things have gone wrong. So younger generations do go to parents and grandparents and ask for help. And initially they might promise to pay back or they might promise to only stay for a while while they’re in a bit of trouble. But then it progresses. The next thing is there’s money missing, there’s cars being used, there’s loans not being repaid. Or worse than that, that older people are actually being confined within their own homes and are not able to get out because family members are using not only their houses but also their cars and all their money to supplement their own needs rather than caring for the needs of the older person.

Jesse Mulligan: What are the harms?

Hanny Naus: Psychologically most abuse affects psychologically as well but in half the cases that Age Concern sees financial abuse is a part of that. And sometimes that is in loans not being repaid but often it is in taking money that doesn't belong to the younger family member. And the older person tries initially to cover up: Doesn't like to let people know that they haven't got money for things, but the old person will go without: Won't go to the doctor, won't get their medication refilled; will reduce what they're spending on money in terms of just their food and everyday items; won't go out, just to make sure that nobody else knows that this problem is happening within the family. That's why often elder abuse is a very hidden situation.

Jesse Mulligan:Do the abusers realise that what they’re doing is abuse that’s wrong?

Hanny Naus: Often in our society ageism is such an undercurrent of what happens that older people are seen as the generation no longer being economically productive. They’ve had it good all their lives. Often they’ve got their own homes and younger people are struggling with deposits. So that [there’s] this underlying factor that older people don't need it. It doesn't matter if they don't get new clothes. It doesn't matter. They don't need hearing aids or they don't need their teeth repaired. Because they're old, so why did they need that? So there’s this underlying feeling that older people don't deserve it. They’re a cost to the economy, they’re a cost to the society.

Hanny Naus: Physical abuse does happen in one out of five cases that Age Concern sees, but it isn’t always that obvious thing of someone being hit. Often it’s much more subtle than that. It may be that medication is withheld or a person is being overmedicated to keep them calm and not being a bother to anybody. So physical abuse does happen, but it isn't the major kind of abuse that Age Concern sees. So that's why we want to expand people's understanding that abuse can happen in a range of forms and underlying most abuse is that psychological threat that keeps older people from speaking up.

Jesse Mulligan: What do you want to achieve with World Elder Abuse Awareness Day?

Hanny Naus: We want New Zealanders to appreciate that this is a much broader issue than the ones that hit the headline. Elder abuse is a much more common feature in our society and it’s something that we all need to speak up about and not just leave it to older people to get to that point that they cannot do but speak up. Because that’s too late usually. So if we’re saying that we want to be a kind society that values everybody, we need to value people from the time they’re born until the time they die.

Hanny Naus: Certainly one of the issues around.euthanasia is whether people’s life is of value. When it comes to elder abuse particularly often the psychological threat that sits below it is that older people have no value. So when it comes to issues like whether life is valuable, we certainly say that anybody’s life is valuable even if they need care and support. At that stage their life is still valuable. So when it comes to euthanasia that is a big debate on a whole lot of other fronts. But from an elder abuse point of view, we would certainly argue that anybody’s life has value regardless of how that might be seen by a particular perpetrator.

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