A new study by a voluntary welfare agency has revealed the harrowing dimensions of elder abuse hovering below the radar of public awareness. Violations include financial abuse, for example, being cheated of savings or property or harassed for money by family members. There could also be physical abuse and psychological abuse, carried out through threats, taunts and insults. The demography of infractions unearthed by the study, carried out by Trans Safe Centre, is also telling. Eight in 10 victims were women, usually mothers. Half of the abusers were sons and a fifth of them, daughters.
As an overwhelmingly family problem, elder abuse raises questions about the permissible ambit of the State in intruding into family life and regulating its inherent patterns of trust and privacy. The family is considered to be the fundamental unit of society for a good reason because its biological bonds and psychological intimacy cannot be matched by the impersonal workings of the State, the economic pursuits of the market, or even the well-meaning but emotionally distant presence of civil society. It would not do to usurp the family's central role, for there is nothing with which to replace it.
However, decisive state intervention becomes a moral necessity when family members cause grievous infringement of the right of seniors to a life of even minimum security and dignity. The problem is compounded by psychological dependence, such as that of a doting mother on her unfilial son, which reduces the chances of the abused taking recourse to the law. In the circumstances, the State must step in and make up for a sad lack of familial ties of love and duty to care.
It does so already for children, striving to protect them from abuse and neglect. Physical or mental decay, particularly in the lethal form of dementia, reduces the elderly to the status of unwanted children in dysfunctional families. When this happens, it is in the same protective spirit which it deals with children that Singapore needs to proceed with the enactment of a law, to be in place next year, that will enhance the interests of vulnerable adults, including the elderly.
Statutory powers of intervention need to be accompanied by improved access of social workers to threatened elderly so that timely intervention can prevent continuing and possibly worsening abuse. Speeding up the process of obtaining personal protection orders, removing victims to temporary shelters, and strengthening protection against financial abuse are other suggested measures to protect the abused in malfunctioning families or to rescue them. These filial pieties of society are pressing imperatives, especially in a greying Singapore.