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Abuse of the elderly on the rise, with relatives mostly responsible

Abuse of the elderly on the rise, with relatives mostly responsible

Abuse of the elderly is on the rise globally, according to the United Nations, which says one in six people over 60 experienced a form of abuse in the past year.

South Africa has a population of almost 61 million people. In 2021, Statistics South Africa recorded the number of people aged 60 and over at 5.5 million, or 9.2% of the population.

Older persons are generally defined as people aged 60 and over. In South Africa, according to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development: “In the case of a male, [it] is 65 years of age or older and, in the case of a female, [it] is 60 years of age or older”.

According to the UN: “Between 2019 and 2030, the number of persons aged 60 years or over is projected to grow by 38%, from 1 billion to 1.4 billion, globally outnumbering youth, and this increase will be the greatest and the most rapid in the developing world…

Elder abuse is a problem that exists in both developing and developed countries yet is typically underreported globally.”

On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on 15 June, the UN said, “Around one in six people 60 years and older experienced some form of abuse in community settings during the past year.”

In 2022, Roedolf Kay, the national coordinator of the South African Older Persons’ Forum (, said that older people were often afraid to report their abusers and face them in court.

Kay said: “In many instances, older persons are unwilling to testify against children and relatives because they do not want to see their child convicted of a crime or they are dependent on that child or relative.”

In the US, the National Council on Aging (NCOA) said as few as one in 24 cases of elder abuse is reported and that in most cases the abuser is a relative of the older person.

“In almost 60% of elder abuse and neglect incidents, the perpetrator is a family member. Two-thirds of perpetrators are adult children or spouses.”

Rise in abuse of older persons

Irene Snell-Carroll, the provincial director of Age in Action in the Western Cape, tells Daily Maverick that she and her organisation have seen a rise in abuse of the elderly since Covid-19.

“Yes, it did increase and the most common one is psychological abuse, because it is not visible and easy to hide… Our economic situation in the country caused even more abuse amongst older persons — people are jobless and steal the pension money,” Snell-Carroll says.

“According to the Older Persons Act 13 of 2006, there are four types of abuse — physical, psychological (better known as emotional abuse), sexual and economical abuse (better known as financial abuse).”

She adds, “We also talk of self-abuse, where an older person does not want to receive help from anybody and also refuses to help themselves despite intervention.”

Age in Action was founded in September 1956 and provides support, assistance and training to families dealing with older persons who need assistance.

“We will support in whatever help the older person needs — even assist to apply to live at a residential facility,” Snell-Carroll says.

She says when a case is reported to Age in Action: “We get a social worker to do a home visit and investigate the matter. Sometimes we can solve the problem without going to court, but if we need to, we will get the courts involved. The most important thing is for the older person to recognise the abuse and report it.”

Anyone who witnesses, suspects or experiences any form of abuse should report it to the police, a doctor, a hospital, or anyone who could potentially help.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) does not specifically record crimes against the elderly as a separate category — which makes it hard to definitively state how many elderly people were victims in reported incidents of assaults, fraud or theft.

Snell-Carroll says her organisation had 115 cases of elder abuse reported to it in the previous financial year in the Western Cape. Of the 115 cases, 53 were psychological abuse, 33 were economic abuse, 28 were physical abuse and one was sexual abuse. From April to June 2023, they received 30 reports, of which four were of physical assaults.

Based in Durban, the non-profit Tafta, or The Association for the Aged, says, “Elder abuse is especially prevalent in societies where poverty, crime and unemployment create hardship and frustration.”

South Africa has in recent years been rocked by particularly violent murders of older people. In Gauteng, an 83-year-old woman was murdered and found tied to a chair, believed to have been tortured. In 2020, four men were convicted of the gruesome killing of a 92-year-old woman in Cape Town they claimed was a witch (they failed in an attempt to burn her alive, but succeeded in drowning her). In July 2023, the bodies of an elderly couple were found in a pool of blood in their home in Limpopo.

Signs of abuse in elderly persons:

  • Physical abuse — bruises, broken bones, abrasions, burns, dehydration, poor hygiene.
  • Emotional abuse — withdrawing from normal activities, depression, arguments, isolation.
  • Financial abuse — sudden changes in financial situations, unpaid bills, unusual spending.
  • Neglect — leaving an elderly person in a soiled bed, or “forgetting” to give them their medication.

A Western Cape government website warns: “The act of forcing or convincing an elderly person to change their will or to persuade them to give power of attorney is also financial abuse.”

NCOA states: “Elders who have been abused have a 300% higher risk of death when compared to those who have not been mistreated.” DM

Tafta national toll-free helpline: 0800 101110
Age in Action: 021 423-0204


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