UN expert urges public action to halt abuse of older persons by relatives

Guest statement by Ms. Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, Independent Expert on the Human Rights of Older Persons, United Nations

Many older persons are at risk of being abused by their own relatives, a United Nations human rights expert has warned. Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, Independent Expert on the human rights of older persons, is urging greater vigilance and more reporting of suspected cases. Speaking ahead of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on 15 June, Ms. Kornfeld-Matte says most abuse goes undetected despite clear warning signs. Her full statement is as follows:

“Elder abuse remains a taboo in many societies. It often happens inconspicuously and in many cases goes unnoticed, but we know that it occurs frequently and in all types of settings. No community or country in the world is immune.

I condemn elder abuse wherever and whenever it happens, but I am particularly appalled that older persons are often at risk from members of their own family.
We must not close our eyes to the fate of older persons, even though it is difficult to accept that our families are not always a safe haven. On this World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, I urge everyone who suspects any form of elder abuse, including financial abuse, to report their concerns.
Elder abuse takes many different forms. Some people suffer discrimination in the public sphere, linguistic discrimination, isolation, neglect and financial exploitation. Others face psychological violence, the withholding of basic needs, physical violence or sexual abuse.
Most cases go undetected despite clear warning signs – for example unexplained bruises, lack of medical care, malnutrition or dehydration, unexplained changes of alertness, or sudden changes in finances and accounts.

We cannot assume the victims will report what is happening to them. Despite facing abuse such as being physically restrained, left in soiled clothes, over-medicated or emotionally neglected, they may not speak up for fear of reprisals – or to protect family members from criminal prosecution.
In some cases, the victims may not be fully aware that what is happening to them constitutes abuse, or they may lack the means to report it, for example if they have no access to a phone or a trusted adult. They may even be physically or mentally incapable of communicating.

This all adds to the weight of our collective responsibility to act, and to speak up for older persons when they are unable or unwilling to speak for themselves. All of us can and must be prepared to be advocates for older people, if this abuse is ever to be halted.

We also need to be aware that collective prejudice against older persons and public awareness influences the way in which abuse and violence is perceived, recognized and reported. It is therefore essential to continue to raise awareness to help prevent some abuse cases and to ensure that those that take place are immediately reported.
It is to be regretted that there is no available data on the scale of the problem, as so many cases are currently not reported. And even if they are, crime statistics are not broken down into different age groups. We also need to be aware that intervention strategies which may be suitable for addressing the issue of domestic abuse are not suitable for managing violent relationships involving older persons.

Elder abuse is a specific, distinct and deeply disturbing form of abuse. We must all play our part in tackling it and restoring full human rights and human dignity to all those affected, or who face being at risk in the future.”

Ms. Rosa Kornfeld-Matte (Chile) was appointed by Human Rights Council as the first Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons in May 2014. Ms. Kornfeld-Matte served as the National Director of the Chilean National Service of Ageing where she designed and implemented the National Policy of Ageing. She has a long career as an academic and is the founder of the programme for older persons at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

The Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For inquiries and media requests relating to this statement, please contact please contact Khaled Hassine (+41 22 917 93 67 / khassine@ohchr.org)