Katherine Southern, the Development Manager for Hourglass Scotland and Northern Ireland gave and excellent presentation on what is understood as elder abuse and how common it is. She emphasised the lack of awareness of the issues and how important it is to draw it to the attention of politicians and the general public.
HOW CAN FAITH COMMUNITIES HELP OLDER PEOPLE WHO EXPERIENCE ABUSE
Ageing Safely in Faith: How Faith Leaders can Respond to the Abuse of Older People
(OUR RECENT EVENT Tuesday 8 February 2022)
“The glory of young men is their strength, grey hair the splendour of the old.” (Proverbs 20:29)
\”He is not of us who does not have mercy on young children, nor honour the elderly\” (Al-Tirmidhi).
Throughout time and across the world, faith traditions have taught that older adults should be valued for their wisdom and their life experience. Yet, new research from Hourglass shows that the abuse of older people receives little to no attention from politicians and the general public. Faith communities show a similar lack of awareness, and religious culture can even exacerbate the issue. How can faith leaders support older victims of abuse, and make sure that older people in their faith communities are supported and protected?
Abuse of older people is under-recognized
According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 6 people over the age of 60 will be victims of abuse. In the UK, that means around 1 million older people experience abuse every year—if not more, given that many instances of abuse go unreported. Abuse can include financial, psychological, physical, or sexual abuse, or coercive control and neglect.
The public vastly underestimates the number of older people who experience abuse: not one person surveyed by Hourglass in November 2021 thought the number of affected older people was as high as it is, and only 7% of the public think of older adults when they think of victims of abuse (animals score much higher). This lack of awareness impedes recognition and reporting of elder abuse. Faith communities can help to raise awareness and address abuse when it occurs.
The role of faith communities
Speaking as a member of the Church of Scotland, I believe that faith communities have a responsibility to address abuse of older people. We are called to serve one another and the world, and our faith communities are largely made up of older people. The 2016 Scottish Church Census found that while people over 65 made up 18.7% of the general population, they made up 42.4% of church attendees.
Moreover, some older members in homes, nursing homes, hospitals, or other places of residence may not receive many visitors outside of faith leaders, making the latter the only people situated to spot and address signs of abuse. Victims of abuse may also turn to clergy for help in a crisis.
Where faith fails victims
It is unfortunate that aspects of religious culture make some congregants less likely to disclose abuse. Traditionally some Christians have thought that personal suffering contributes to their salvation. Others have been taught that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Still others may view their own suffering as punishment for past sin, and therefore deserved. Clergy are especially well positioned to counter such harmful views and help victims of abuse (and others!) reframe their experience in ways that contribute to their flourishing.
Ageing safely in faith
Faith leaders should foster communities where older people can age safely and speak openly about real or potential abuse. As a faith leader or person of faith, you can:
- Ensure that older people are valued. While our faith communities do need to devote time and resources to attracting and serving young families, let us continue to treasure our older members.
- Work to counteract rhetoric about “deserved” suffering. In a Christian context, this might mean reminding people that in Christ we have already been forgiven, and also that each person is made in God’s image and therefore deserving of respect and care.
- Talk about abuse and display resources. Mention the topic of elder abuse from the pulpit or in conversation. Display pertinent resources so as to create an environment where people feel they can acknowledge abuse.
In conclusion, if you are a religious leader (whether formally appointed or as a member of the laity), please consider steps your faith community can take to address the problem of elder abuse, and thereby to help everyone in the community to age safely, free from fear of abuse.
Katherine Southern is the Development Manager for Scotland and Northern Ireland, the only charity in the UK specifically dedicated to stopping abuse of older people. Originally from the U.S.A., she is an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a member of the Church of Scotland
“Hourglass is the only charity dedicated to calling time on the harm, abuse and exploitation of older people across the United Kingdom. With more than 25 years’ experience and expertise, the mission of Hourglass is to listen, advise and support older people at risk of abuse and their loved ones throughout the UK. Every year, more than a million older people are physically, psychologically, financially, or sexually abused, or neglected in the UK. That’s one in six older people who are victims of abuse.
What can faith communities do to respond to this epidemic of violence? In this talk, to be followed by a Q&A, the Development Manager for Hourglass Scotland will provide an overview of what all faith communities should know in order to effectively recognize and respond to abuse. The talk will cover what the charity knows about the scope and nature of abuse of older people in Scotland, the effects of the pandemic on older people at risk of abuse, and the warning signs of abuse and neglect. The talk will also address how faith leaders can help prevent abuse by creating communities receptive to the voices of survivors, and how they can respond to the spiritual needs of victims and survivors.
Talk about it, have resources available How it’s not talked about
Emphasis often put on younger people in the church
- to educate, encourage and support volunteers, health and social care workers, members of faith communities and other agencies to increase their understanding of spiritual care and issues around ageing
- to deliver events, courses and materials to meet identified need
- to continue to build the capacity and efficiency of the organisation
The challenge for older people is to make sense of life at a stage when loss and change occur more frequently and perhaps more painfully.
Even some aspects of Christian culture are less than helpful when Christians are involved as participants in such relationships. We have a way of reacting to each other in the church as righteous saints, rather than the sinners saved by the grace of God that we really are. We rarely, if ever, confess our sins to each other. Admitting that we need help ought not to be so difficult. We are placed together in fellowships to care for each other, and not to judge. Why is it so difficult for a Christian to say to his or her brethren that he or she is struggling with their duties and emotions and needs help right now?
It is naturally assumed that children will look after their aged parents. Unfortunately, in British culture this often means a lone daughter trying to do everything for a disabled parent and feeling terrible if they need assistance or cannot manage and the parent needs a residential home. But that is not what the Bible says. The Bible says we are to honour and esteem old people – it does not say single Christians are to destroy themselves by trying to cope alone with burdens that the wider community (and particularly Christian community) should be sharing. The command to honour the elderly is one made to the Church as a whole. Local churches could do much to alleviate these burdens, and to prevent explosive situations arising.
Abuse of older people is under-recognised
Faith communities have a responsibility, more than others, to address abuse, both because of the high prevalence of older people and because of the greater likelihood that older people will disclose abuse
Aspects of Christian culture can, in insidious ways, make people less likely to disclose abuse
- Faith could reinforce someone’s mistaken view that they should submit to abuse, if they misread Household Codes, or share in a view (popular among some older Catholics) that personal suffering is redemptive, or that “God won’t give them more than they can handle” (from a perverse reading of a verse in 1 Corinthians), or that they are being punished for past sins.
Faith leaders should seek to make their communities places where people can come forward – both by talking about abuse, displaying resources, etc., but also by counteracting those aspects of faith that may discourage people from coming forward.
FiOP – HOURGLASS Seminar February 2022 – comments from delegates
“Many thanks to Maureen and Katherine at Hourglass for an excellent seminar, so informative and well presented. I feel that I have learned so much!”
“Amazing, thank you Katherine.”
Development Manager for Hourglass Scotland and Northern Ireland