Elderly people are being routinely ill-treated by carers or relatives, says Lib Dem MP Paul Burstow
As many as 370,000 older people have been abused in their own homes by a carer, relative or friend in the last year, according to figures, exposing what has been described as a “hidden national scandal”.
The number aged over 65 who are physically, psychologically or financially persecuted at home every year is likely to reach almost half a million by the end of the decade.
Elderly men and women across the country, from all walks of life, are routinely ill-treated, yet former health minister Paul Burstow warns that their plight is often ignored or dismissed.
The scale of the abuse, and its rapid growth, has prompted Burstow, who uncovered the figures, to demand a series of radical changes in the law to aid the detection and punishment of those misusing their positions.
As it stands, social services are constrained in their ability to gain access to the elderly in their own homes when a carer is proving an obstacle, even where abuse is suspected. There is also no criminal charge of neglect available against those mistreating a vulnerable and older person who is judged to be of sound mind.
Burstow, a Liberal Democrat MP, told the Observer that elderly people looked after in their homes enjoyed few legal protections and were all too often condemned to living their last years in misery, “out of sight and out of mind”. He said: “This is a hidden national scandal. The thing that worries me is what this says about our society.
“There is a feeling that people who are elderly have had a good innings already, or that by the time that the abuse can be uncovered the victim will be dead. The cases that do feature rarely prompt the revulsion that follows cases of child abuse, or the system being galvanised to say ‘never again’.”
The former minister is due to meet the prime minister in Downing Street to discuss the crisis, along with the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales and Gary FitzGerald, chief executive of the charity Action on Elder Abuse.
Burstow said: “The prime minister should use the care bill to toughen up the law and send a powerful message that abusing and neglecting older and vulnerable people won’t go undetected and unpunished.
“It is not acceptable to turn a blind eye to the fact that most abuse takes place in people’s own homes. The law must be able to protect even when someone is too frightened to call for help.”
The figures were compiled by the House of Commons library by extrapolating from a survey of 2,000 people who live in their own homes first carried out in 2007 by researchers at the National Centre for Social Research and King’s College London. They found that the majority of abusers, 53%, were living in the respondent’s house at the time of the abuse. Of those, 65% of perpetrators were recorded as having committed physical, psychological or sexual abuse.
The library analysis suggests that 371,900 people aged over 66 in the UK suffered abuse in their own home from a relative, carer or close friend in the last year, ranging from neglect and financial fraud to emotional abuse and physical or sexual assault.
By 2020 the number is estimated to increase to 457,600; by 2030 the number is set to hit around 558,700. The projected increase in the number of people being abused correlates with the ageing of the country’s population. People aged 85 and over are the fastest growing group in the population and are projected to increase substantially in numbers over the following decades.
The abuse figures are all the more alarming because they exclude care home residents and people suffering from dementia who live in the community. At his meeting with the prime minister on Wednesday, Burstow will champion the case for three key changes to the law.
He will lobby for a new power of access to the homes of the elderly for social services, to allow them to carry out confidential interviews and ensure no one is denied protection because they are under duress.
Burstow is also seeking a new offence of neglect, to provide protection for those who, though not incapable, remain vulnerable to abuse in institutions or in the community.
Finally, fresh from the recent scandals involving the maltreatment of the elderly in care homes and NHS hospitals, Burstow and his delegation will call for a new offence of corporate neglect to be introduced to hold corporations to account for serious failures of care. This would also affect professional carers who are brought into people’s private properties to look after the elderly.
Burstow said: “Older people see the terrible abuse in Winterbourne View, the neglect at Mid Staffs, and the stories about poor care in some care homes, and ask why no one ever goes to jail.”
FitzGerald added: “People are being imprisoned in their own homes by their abusers. Too many people are getting away with it.”