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Call for tougher laws to protect elderly

Claudette Fleming (File photograph)

Claudette Fleming has highlighted the urgent need for better protection of seniors as those over 65 will this month outnumber those under 14.

Tougher legislation is also needed to prevent and protect vulnerable seniors from abuse, according to the executive director of Age Concern.

Dr Fleming, who spoke to The Royal Gazette as part of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, questioned whether it was time to establish an equivalent of Child and Family Services for the elderly.

It comes after years of concern over Bermuda’s ability to care for its ageing population.According to a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health and Seniors, an adult protection system for seniors and persons with disabilities is being developed as part of a “longer-term” care strategy, but this will “require legislative changes and access to resources to ensure the appropriate infrastructure is in place”.

Last year, a total of 33 cases of senior abuse were investigated by Ageing and Disability Services, who have a shared responsibility with the Bermuda Police Service to look into reports.

“Some people can get very frustrated and feel as though they are not being supported because the system is still kind of fragmented,” Dr Fleming said.

“We don’t have the legislative teeth that we need to do some more concrete things and the [Senior Abuse Registry] Act itself is about a registry and not protection and prevention and that needs to change.

“And then we probably need the equivalent infrastructure, like you would see at Child and Family Services.

“Do we have senior protection workers? We don’t. We have case managers who do their best to take this up as an issue in addition to the other things that they manage.

“But when you think of the fact that in this month, seniors over 65 will outnumber those under the age of 14, you have to question whether or not you now need the equivalent of child protective services for seniors because of the population shift. These are policy matters that have to be addressed.”

Elder abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological or financial, with the latter the theme of this year’s awareness day. According to the United Nations’ Division for Social Policy and Development, 5 to 10 per cent of older people globally may experience some kind of financial exploitation.

Dr Fleming said this was also a concern in Bermuda, adding: “With all the people coming into pensions, with the National Pension Scheme — it’s 20 years in — we’ll have people come into tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It’s one thing to have your physical capabilities and have money and be able to make decisions. But when your mental capacity is gone, and some people do a very good job of being responsible and acquiring homes and saving but then they lose their mental capacity and this leaves them extremely vulnerable to abuse.”

Combined with rising rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s, she said this created “a situation that could lend itself to an abusive environment if we don’t have the right protections in place”.

Full residential care facilities, the hospital bed crisis and the lack of strong home-care infrastructure also “all create an atmosphere of putting a lot of stress on families who may not be equipped to deal with older loved ones at home and again put our seniors at quite a risk of abuse”.

The fifth or sixth most common call received by Age Concern is about abuse, according to Dr Fleming, and the charity is required by law to pass this information to the police and Ageing and Disability Services.

“Ageing and Disability Services then have the ability to go in and investigate and they will have their processes as to how they determine if it warrants an investigation,” she said, adding that this needed more support. “I understand at this moment it is very stretched in some of the things it does, let alone have the ability to be out and about in the community to make sure that the circumstances of abuse aren’t existing.”

The spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health and Seniors said “the Ministry is conscious of the legislative and resource challenges in protecting vulnerable adults in general, including both seniors and persons with disabilities”.

“Under the Long-Term Care Action Plan, developments are under way to address some of these difficulties in the short and long term, including exploring an Office of the Public Guardian, addressing mental capacity issues, and strengthening the prevention of abuse within care homes,” she said.

She added that there were key areas within the Senior Abuse Registry Act 2008 “that can be improved upon to ensure a more accessible and efficient system both for vulnerable persons and the regulator”.

The Power of Attorney Act, The Mental Health Act and the Residential Care Home and Nursing Home Act and Regulations, which also promote and ensure the prevention of abuse, also require updating and strengthening, she said. And a longer-term strategy will include the development of an adult protection system for seniors and for persons with disabilities.

“To create a more comprehensive adult protection system requires legislative changes and access to resources to ensure the appropriate infrastructure is in place,” she said, adding that these resources would include the likes of public receivers and access to emergency placement.

“With regard to case managers specifically, Ageing and Disability Services is actively working to achieve full staffing levels to better assist the community with both prevention and protection.”