No country for old people

There is a horrific shame hidden in houses across our nation and we hardly ever talk about it. In bedrooms or lounges or kitchens throughout the land old, frail Kiwis are being abused. It might be that meals aren’t made for a day, or no bathroom stops are given for two. It might be that the heaters aren’t turned on in winter or it might be a slap across the cheek.

Yes, when it comes to our beautiful, grumpy, tall, small old people we are a downright mean nation.

We get hints with stories like that of “Uncle Bill”. Piri Wiri Tua Hemi was taken in by his family after hidden cameras revealed that he was being viciously slapped at Cascades Retirement Resort in Hamilton. Last week he passed away surrounded by loving family members instead of cold staff, thanks to a caring whanau who kept an eye on him and acted as soon as they suspected something wasn’t right.

If only his was an isolated incident. But it is not. Our media is peppered with stories like this, and worse. There are stories of those whose bodies remain undiscovered for months after they die, so isolated and uncared for are they.

There are far more stories that don’t make the media. Groups like Age Concern report that elder abuse is on the rise. That organisation alone gets 2000 notifications of abuse a year, and notes that most older people keep quiet about their abuse out of fear of retribution by their carers – often family members. These carers are their only means of transport to toilets, bed, or the kitchen sometimes. Too many of our elderly live in fear of soiling themselves, starving, or being left on the couch without blankets on a cold night as “punishment” for supposed crimes like refusing to lend money.

And you don’t have to be old to find out that our nation doesn’t respect – or even like- age. Just last month, New Zealand’s Retirement Commissioner called for a national conversation on age discrimination in the workplace, saying that those over 50 often lived in fear that if they lose their jobs, they won’t be able to find another one. Their experience, their record and their character are all burned at the altar of age.

The worst part, perhaps, is that we let our leaders legitimise it. Politicians seem to take pleasure in trotting out the line that certain issues are about the “future”. Especially when the older population is against whatever bill the politician wants passed. There is only one thing this means if you are elderly; you are irrelevant and we do not care about you.

We let our academics and entertainers trot out the line that our recent past was racist, sexist, or chauvinists every time they refer to it, and we don’t respond by pointing out the high employment, sound marriages, and high participation in volunteer groups that also characterised this period. The message, when it comes to the history our elderly have handed us, is that they contributed nothing except embarrassment.

Yet we are surprised when people get caught out treating the elderly like they are irrelevant, as if we don’t care, or as though they are an embarrassment.

And strangely, we don’t understand that the way we treat our elderly today is the way we can expect our children to treat us tomorrow. Throw off the aged, and we cast off our own crown of wisdom.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

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