(photo credit: Sasson Tiram [file])
Sensationalist headlines about extreme physical abuse against the elderly only serve to distract attention from the real problems of elder abuse, which are emotional and financial, according to Sraya Sharabi, head of the Ezrat Avot NGO.
"With the elderly, we are talking about abuse that exists in everyday situations," Sharabi told The Jerusalem Post in an interview ahead of International Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which will be marked worldwide for the second time on Friday. The government marked the day on Tuesday.
"I heard what was discussed in the Knesset this week and realized that, in some ways, we have already lost the war," Sharabi said. "All the examples they gave during the sessions were the extreme ones, when most of the situations are more subtle."
According to Sharabi, the main problem is society's attitude toward older people, who are very often seen as "problematic" or "disposable," and the only way to improve the situation for those "who built this country" is through increased awareness and education.
"We have a society that is abusive to the elderly population," he said. "I know of many elderly people who cannot leave their homes because it's just too difficult for them. No one takes any notice of their needs and many of them are too old or frail to put up a fight."
While Sharabi said that most victims of abuse would not be willing to be interviewed for this article, he said that as someone in daily contact with the old-age community, he could give numerous examples of such victimization by family members and other primary caregivers.
"An 80-year-old woman in one of our day clubs has been suffering terribly at the hands of her children," said Sharabi. "Their aim is to kick her out of her home so that they can live there, and they have made her living conditions unbearable in order to force her out."
Sharabi said that one of Ezrat Avot's social workers had been trying to help the woman. "Last winter we bought her a heater, and after a few weeks our social worker noticed that it had disappeared. Apparently the children took it and sold it," he said.
"Even the most straightforward and genuine of people can suddenly turn abusive when it becomes an issue of money," Sharabi said. "They seem to lose sight of what is right and fail to behave appropriately."
Barbara Lang, national coordinator for the prevention of elder abuse in the Health Ministry, told the Post that the first step in raising awareness was to teach professionals to recognize the signs of abuse.
"We have a very long road ahead of us," said Lang, who has been in her job for four months. "We have to spread the word as quickly as we can to prevent unnecessary suffering, so our first goal is educating professionals."
Lang said guidelines laid out by the ministry in 2003 instructed hospitals, old age homes and day centers to set up working committees to deal with possible abuse and neglect. Members of the panels - doctors, nurses and social workers - were asked to undergo special courses so they would know what to look for.
"It is hard for people to admit they are being abused. Many times they are being abused by their primary caregiver and are frightened that the person looking after them will turn away," said Lang, highlighting the findings of a recent study by the University of Haifa's Department of Gerontology and School of Social Work. The study found that a quarter of Israel's elderly population living at home and being cared for by family members are neglected and abused, although researchers noted that most of the crimes were unwitting.
"Many people don't even realize what abuse is," she said. "Only about 2 percent of the abuse is physical, but even if the abuse is not intentional, the outcome is still the same."
The International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse initiated June 15 as the day to raise awareness of the problem. The network has called on people to "Wear Something Purple" to "show the world you care about ending elder abuse and neglect."