PORTUGUESE SOCIETY needs to become more aware of the rights of the elderly, according to the country’s representative of the European Network of Prevention of Violence Against Old People.
Jurist Ana Paula Guimarães, a specialist in gerontology which studies ageing and the problems of the elderly, warns that internment of the elderly in homes without their consent must be considered akin to the crime of kidnapping. Guimarães also believes that this represents a violation of individual liberties and, as such, a serious breach of the Portuguese Constitution. Guimarães maintains that examples abound of abuse of the elderly in Portugal. She argues that, while child abuse is increasingly recognised as a major issue, old people in Portugal frequently suffer from negligence, psychological pressure and financial abuse and, all too often, this is accompanied by a veil of silence from neighbours and acquaintances.
Children, by contrast, are better cared for by the authorities and currently receive two-fold protection – from the law of protection of minors which contains a mechanism to remove the child from any likely aggressor, as well as any parallel legal process. On the other hand, a mistreated elderly person can only make a complaint to the authorities. In any case, he or she frequently lacks the ability to make such a complaint in the first place (if he or she is bedridden) and, even if he or she does so, the State fails to separate the aggressor from the victim. In addition, the victim runs the risk of antagonising the aggressor once the complaint has been revealed, thereby exacerbating the abuse.
Public has “civic duty”
Guimarães says people should interfere when they suspect there has been mistreatment of the elderly, saying that the public has “a civic duty” to denounce such acts. “If we fail to do this, then we are accomplices,” she maintains. She also says that society must change the way it views people over the age of 65, calling for urgent revision to current legislation.
Prevention, argues Guimarães, is fundamental. The jurist proposes the creation of more procedures to evaluate the wellbeing of elderly relatives cared for by their families. She says that the State has an obligation to introduce policies that support the elderly. “It is difficult for families to adopt better behaviour when the State does not know what to do about old age,” she adds.
A recent study of 104 old people in Braga revealed that 73 had been victims of some type of mistreatment. Sadly, the study confirms Guimarães’ view that it is the immediate family who are often the worst offenders. José Ferreira-Alves, from the Institute of Education and Psychology at Minho University, the person who carried out the study, describes a typical elderly victim as an uneducated widow over the age of 80, living with her children and perceived to be in a state of poor health. Older men, on the other hand, are less vulnerable, particularly those under the age of 80.