Help the aged

elderly2 lr

As our population ages, dealing with the safety of the elderly is becoming a core part of a garda’s job writes Sean Moynihan


ALONE, an organisation which supports, befriends and provides homes for older people in need, was founded over 35 years ago by Dublin fireman Willie Bermingham, who, during the course of his duty in the cold winter of 1976, found a number of older people dead in their homes. Joined by a small group of friends and colleagues, he distributed food, fuel and blankets to those older people suffering from cold, hunger, loneliness and isolation.

Today, ALONE continues its work with the one in 10 older people who are at risk of homelessness, socially isolated, vulnerable or in crisis. We provide supportive housing, befriending, community response and campaigning services to over 300 older people on a weekly basis.

One hundred ALONE residents live in age-friendly homes and staff develop individual support plans with each resident to maximise their independence and quality of life. The befriending service volunteers, who are trained and garda-vetted, visit over 200 older people every week, offering companionship and practical help.

“We regularly come across older people who are too afraid to leave their homes for fear of crime and this can have a severely negative impact …”

The community response service supports older people in crisis and deals with approximately 30 emergency situations a month. ALONE’s ‘Campaigns for Change’ works to highlight poor or inadequate services as well as campaigning for policy changes to ensure the rights of older people are protected. All of our services are non-denominational and confidential. We receive no funding for our day to day activities and services are delivered 365 days a year, operating with a ratio of one staff member to every 15 volunteers.

Thankfully statistics show that older people are less likely to become victims of crime than other groups, however the fear of crime among this group is significantly higher.  We regularly come across older people who are too afraid to leave their homes for fear of crime and this can have a severely negative impact on their physical and mental health. Studies show that social isolation leads to an increased risk of poverty and deprivation, loneliness and other situations which inflict upon the ability of older people to live healthy, independent lives as they age.

Over 2,302 allegations of abuse of elderly people were reported to the HSE last year. The HSE’s elder-abuse services said the number of referrals of elder abuse it received rose by nine percent compared with 2010, when 2,111 referrals were made. Since 2008 there has been a national increase of 22 percent in the rate of referrals made.

Of the cases referred to the HSE during 2011, 1,867 had a person allegedly causing concern, while 429 involved self-neglect and six represented organisational abuse. Psychological abuse was the most common type of abuse reported, accounting for 35 percent of all cases. This was followed by financial abuse, neglect and physical abuse. The majority of the alleged victims were reported to be female. In addition there was a higher referral rate among the over 80 age group compared with 65 to 79 year olds. The study shows 81 percent of referrals related to individuals living at home. According to a study from the National Centre for the Protection of Older People, there are a greater number of older people who are experiencing abuse than are reporting it.

In 2010, the organisation estimated 10,201 older people had experienced abuse in the previous year. The study suggested several reasons for the under-reporting of abuse, including not recognising the behaviour as abusive; a reluctance to inform on perpetrators; lack of knowledge on how to report abuse and a lack of confidence in the professionals to detect or respond to elder abuse.

ALONE continues its work with the one in 10 older people who are at risk of homelessness, socially isolated, vulnerable or in crisis 

The older respondents of a recent survey carried out in Northern Ireland were shown to be much more likely than younger people to worry about walking alone in the area after dark, with those aged 75+ (18%) more likely to feel ‘very unsafe’ than those aged under 35 (5%). This is particularly evident for women, as a quarter of those aged 75+ felt ‘very unsafe’ compared with 8% of women aged 16-24. The respective figures for males were 8% and 3%.

One of the older people who had been helped by ALONE’s community response team, Chris, 82, was unfortunately a victim of an attempted robbery in May this year. Chris lives alone and suffers from vertigo, high blood pressure, chest difficulties and hearing problems. Two people called to his front door and when he answered, they pushed him inside. “They didn’t hurt me, but it was a frightening experience,” said Chris. “They stayed for around an hour looking for money, but they didn’t find any. They left when my sister turned up.”

One of the people who broke into Chris’s home turned up at his home again a few days later. “She turned up at the door. She had gotten a taxi here and told me to pay the fare; she said all she wanted was a bit of money and she would leave.”

Thankfully, a garda was passing by at the time and arrested the perpetrator. However, she is now out on bail and Chris is concerned that she will target him again. “I’m worried they will show up again – they know where I live and that I live alone,” he said. He is now considering getting a pendant alarm for extra safety and is more vigilant when people call to his house. He is also considering getting an intercom and extra locks on his door, but this will be expensive. He is also facing the possibility of having to go to court over the incidents, which will be another distressing experience for him. Chris’s story highlights how older people, especially those who live alone, can be targeted by thieves and must be extra vigilant, and take precautions to keep themselves, their property and their possessions safe.

Abuse of older people can occur at home, in the community and in nursing homes. Security of older people is a very important issue as mental and physical health can deteriorate with age. Older people can suffer abuse not only from strangers but their own family and friends. ALONE urges people to be aware of the types of abuse, signs of abuse, risk factors, prevention and reporting abuse. We believe in the importance of high value yet low cost services that enable people to live as independently and for as long as possible in their own homes, and emphasise the importance of community support that will help older people to live happily and in safety.

ALONE believes that older people’s rights should be protected and fought for.

We urge the gardaí to be particularly vigilant for vulnerable older people in the community. As resources are being cut, older people are becoming more and more isolated; it is important that we all watch out for the most vulnerable in society. We would ask any garda who comes across an older person with poor physical or mental health, isolation or unsuitable living conditions to contact ALONE or their local Health Centre for support.

Sean Moynihan is CEO of ALONE.
ALONE – tel: (01) 679 1032 

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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