The elderly are those more at risk amid the great threats Puerto Rico faces. Let us commit today, on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, to protecting them from all forms of neglect and abuse.
They are not only at higher risk of serious complications and even death if contracting the COVID-19, but also they elderly see how coronavirus-associated consequences in all areas of society have the potential to increase threats to them. Stay at home orders expose them, on one hand, to loneliness and, on the other, to aggressions where there are patterns of domestic violence. Besides, growing unemployment and poverty make them frequent victims of financial exploitation and various forms of scams.
The United Nations (UN) estimates that one in six older adults suffers some form of abuse worldwide. In Puerto Rico, in just over a month since the coronavirus emergency was declared, the government received more than 700 referrals of possible elderly abuse cases.
Social distancing recommendations aimed at preventing the spread of the virus cannot become an excuse for neglect. The elderly, like children, are the responsibility of the whole society, from family members to neighbors and third sector organizations. The government, particularly municipalities, also has a share in the collective duty to offer support and to seek their well-being. On the other hand, due to the pandemic, the central government must strictly oversee the nearly one thousand long-term care centers where nearly 30,000 older adults live.
Elder abuse is considered a public health problem. Therefore, the UN recommends that countries take measures to help prevent it. Health care institutions and professionals can cooperate with efforts to recognize the signs of abuse and to provide guidance to family members and caregivers. Educational campaigns, such as the proposed international awareness day, bring information and understanding about how serious the problem is and how to avoid it.
Law 121-2019 defines abuse as cruel or negligent treatment of an older adult when another person causes him/her damage or exposes him/her to the risk of suffering damage to his/her health, well-being, or property. This includes physical, emotional, financial, neglect, abandonment, assault, theft, misappropriation, threat, wire fraud, age discrimination, restraint to civil rights, exploitation, and sexual abuse, among others. It occurs by both action and omission and can be perpetrated by a family member, friend, acquaintance, or stranger.
Among risk factors, the UN mentions high levels of stress, lack of social support, emotional or financial dependence on the older person, lack of training in the care they need, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse. People with dementia-related problems are at higher risk of abuse.
Let us take this World Elder Abuse Awareness Day to raise awareness of the contributions of older people to our families and the island, and take care of them. Now that most economic and labor activities are resuming, family members and caregivers must take care of themselves to protect our older adults. Similarly, during this hurricane season, we must ensure that they have provisions and that they are an integral part of family emergency plans. Let us preserve in the essence of our culture the value of the elderly as a pillar of society.