2023-03-08 OWN Europe contribution to the International Women’s Day, 8 March 2023: The complex gender face of digital exclusion in old age
Europe is the most digitally connected region in the world with nearly 90% of the population being online. While most policy makers look proudly at this achievement, this general figure hides huge disparities between countries and population subgroups. Large numbers of people residing in Europe face increasing challenges to cope with the rapid digitalisation of many essential services one needs to take part in today’s society. Since the beginning of the millennium, both public and private service providers have been engaged in a race for innovative and cheaper digital solutions to interact with their citizens and consumers. The recent COVID health crisis has boosted digitalisation in various domains impacting daily activities which used to be mainly accessed through non-digital ways. In some countries citizens and consumers are now expected to go online to apply for social care, fill their income tax form or request public support to cope with rocketing inflation, book a doctor’s or dentist appointment, pay their bills or transfer money, find information on bus routes and buy a ticket for local public transport, and so forth. In a few countries it is mandatory to use digital self-service to access a wide range of public services.
Yet, as the latest Eurostat surveys on various internet activities show, even in countries which have almost reached universal access to internet, the ratios of adults using internet for essential services are lower than the ratios of people considered to be connected to internet in all age and gender groups. This demonstrates that while achieving universal connectivity is essential, it is not enough to achieve universal meaningful connectivity, as stressed by the United Nations International Telecommunication Union.
While digitalisation facilitates the life of many, it leaves behind significant numbers of citizens, as reported by a recent survey of King Baudoin Foundation. When assessed in a more detailed way the digital divide is in fact increasing particularly amongst older age groups due to the complexity and increased interconnectivity of most digital services which raise safety concerns among people with lower digital skills. In 2020, 46% of the population was at risk of digital exclusion, an increase of 6 p.p. since 2019.
The recent Eurostat survey on the use of internet banking shows that in the European Union slightly less than 68% of both men and women aged 25-54 while only 46% of men and 39% of women aged 55-74 use internet banking. This means that more than 32% of women aged 25-54 years old and 61% of women 55-74 years do not use internet banking. If persons aged 75+ were included in the surveys, the ratio of older people, and particularly older women facing digital financial exclusion in the European Union would be much higher.
Although younger women resident in Europe are now doing as well or even slightly better than men in terms of using internet for essential services, older women are still at a higher risk of digital exclusion than older men because on average they have lower incomes, lower educational attainment, had shorter careers due to family care duties, often worked in jobs which required no or low levels of digital skills or where they faced gender discrimination in access to training on digital skills. They are also more likely to have lower financial literacy, have no or a slow internet connexion, or find it more difficult to afford the costs of hardware and internet subscription packages.
And, as highlighted by the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by older persons, older women’s lack of confidence in using digital devices results from accumulated disadvantages throughout their life course that put them at a higher risk of social exclusion and dependency on others to access essential digital services.
Older women are however faced with unchanged expectations to perform their professional duties, maintain households, deal with budgets, banks, administration, care for members of the family (often relatives with disabilities or serious illness or young children) and so forth. Most of them fulfil these numerous duties for the benefit not just of their families and employers, but for their communities and society at large.
At the same time there is no balance between the responsibilities older women endorse and the support they receive. This is especially important in the field of digital literacy, digital banking, online learning and training and specialised online courses. Older female workers are barely included in professional digital trainings. Online training on support-for example on how to care for a person with disabilities or dementia at home and so on is limited and difficult to access; this is especially likely for those who need them most.
Older women have accumulated vast amounts of experience and knowledge during their life course, but they lack the tailored educational and financial support they need to benefit on an equal footing from the opportunities offered by today’s digital world to fulfil their potential and more easily meet their various responsibilities in their families and local communities. On this day to acknowledge International Women’s Day around the world we must continue to draw attention to the complex gendered nature of digital exclusion, particularly as it relates to older women.
 United Nations International Telecommunication Union, Sept. 2022, Press release
 Roi Baudouin Foundation, Baromètre de l’inclusion numérique, 2022, https://media.kbs-frb.be/fr/media/9844/ZOOM_inclusion_numerique_2022
 Statistics | Eurostat (europa.eu)
 Human rights of older women: the intersection between ageing and gender, Report of the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Claudia Mahler, A/76/157
22 /10/ 01: OWN Europe Statement to mark the UNIDOP 2022 on The Resilience and Contributions of Older Women (PDF)
OWN Europe members warmly welcome the UNIDOP 2022 focus on the resilience and contributions of older women, especially since this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Madrid Action Plan on Ageing. Celebrating the roles older women fulfil in their families and communities is highly relevant but should not obscure the difficulties and inequalities faced by older women, particularly the very old.
In the last two decades the resilience of older women has been challenged by a succession of economic, public health, environmental and geopolitical crises exacerbated by the rapid ageing of the population across Europe. During the covid 19 crisis, older women were very motivated to continue with their family care duties or take new volunteer roles to help alleviate the burden on health and care professionals but, due to the high risk identified for the older age groups, they were denied access to their grand-children and voluntary activities. Overnight they were labelled ‘vulnerable persons to be protected through social distancing’; this was undoubtedly a very hard experience especially for the many who had already been actively engaged in informal care and voluntary work. Luckily, vaccination campaigns helped break the social isolation they endured for too long, but many now feel that their contributions to their families and communities have changed and that they have fewer opportunities to contribute. Society has evolved quickly in recent years and seems increasingly to consider population ageing as a burden to social protection systems rather than to value older persons as assets for their communities.
By 2100 the proportion of people aged 65+ is expected to reach one third of the total population, and people aged 80 years or above in the EU’s population are projected to have a two and a half fold increase between 2021 and 2100, from 6.0 % to 14.6 % with two thirds being older women. Given the magnitude of the 21st century demographic changes, policy makers need better comparable gender disaggregated data about the old and oldest-old groups to design policies that are fit for purpose to respond to their populations’ needs and expectations. Regular data collection should include access to health and long term care, housing, living conditions, disposable income as well as involvement in life-long-learning, social participation and informal contributions to community.
To pay justice to the resilience and contributions of older women in Europe and worldwide, OWN Europe members call on policy makers in member states, UN entities, UN Women, and civil society to pay due attention to older women, including the oldest old in all relevant policies, ensuring gender equality as described in the Secretary-General’s report of September 2021 which established the UN objectives for the next 25 years. More specifically, OWN Europe calls on policy makers at all levels to:
- Facilitate older women’s involvement in defending their rights at international, national and local levels, including for the oldest old.
- Seriously tackle all forms of compounded ageism and sexism at institutional, social and cultural levels by developing knowledge and understanding among policy makers and service providers at all levels, about what age and gender mainstreaming means.
- Take the necessary legal and social initiatives to eradicate elder abuse in all its forms as recommended by the UN in June 2022 in their Guide about dealing with the growing problem of elder abuse
- Design and implement health and care policies which focus on prevention and rehabilitation: women live longer but can spend longer years with health problems and lower access to services that promote autonomous living. Yet only a few can afford residential care.
- Implement pension reforms which will adequately tackle the gender gap in pensions for both current and future generations and will ensure a decent old age income for older women with limited employment related pensions that result from past informal caring duties and gender discrimination in the labour market. Special attention must be paid to widows left with very low old age income and survival pensions.
- Encourage local public authorities to provide safe, accessible and affordable transportation including for the oldest old, paying attention to the specific accessibility needs of older women (bus routes, timetables, help with boarding, safety onboard, etc.).
- Promote free (or cheap) local programmes for educational and leisure activities which mix age/gender groups including the oldest old, as an effective health promotion initiative.
- Boost older people’s and in particular oldest old women’s participation, in relevant volunteering activities, to strengthen their social inclusion.
Concluding recommendation to United Nations entities and member states
To ensure that progress is achieved soon at grassroots levels, with direct positive impact on older women’s lives, OWN Europe members strongly recommend that UN entities and member states pay much needed attention to compounded and intersectional ageism and sexism when setting the foundation of their renewed social contract, anchored in human rights, as defined in their Common Agenda.
To conclude: OWN Europe members would like to remind UN member states that a UN Convention on the rights of older persons has been under discussion for more than ten years now. Such an instrument is needed more than ever to promote older women’s rights, foster their resilience and ensure their contributions to society are recognised and duly valued.
Drafted on behalf of OWN Europe members by Elizabeth Sclater, Isabella Paoletti, Bridget Penhale and Anne-Sophie Parent
Image source: Dreamstime royalty free stock 18869128
22/10/01: OWN Europe analysis of Rome 2022 MIPPA Ministerial declaration and joint civil society and scientific research declaration (PDF)
Once every five years the UNECE and its member states undertake a review of the Regional Implementation Strategy (RIS) of the Madrid International Plan on Active Ageing (MIPAA) adopted in 2002. The 5th UNECE Ministerial Conference on Ageing held in Rome in June 2022 completed the 4th review of the implementation of the RIS for Europe since 2002, and marked the 20th anniversary of the MIPAA/RIS for Europe. Every five years, the MIPAA review also provides an opportunity for civil society and researchers to take stock of their own analysis of progress achieved since the previous review and to address recommendations to United Nations and national policy makers on areas where more efforts are needed.
To get an overview of the outcomes of this 4th MIPAA/RIS review and the recommendations endorsed by member states and civil society/researchers for the next five years, OWN Europe has analyzed the MIPAA2022 Ministerial declaration and Joint civil society and scientific research declaration.
What we learnt from the MIPAA 2022 Rome events and declarations
The Ministerial Conference 2022 was entitled “A Sustainable World for All Ages: Joining Forces for Solidarity and Equal Opportunities Throughout Life”. When comparing the agendas of the Ministerial Conference and Joint Forum with the contents of their respective declarations, it seems that the events and the declarations are distinct processes, with the final declarations focusing on a broader policy agenda and both being agreed in advance of the MIPAA events.
On the UNECE Population Ageing website one can only find the MIPAA Ministerial Declarations. To help grassroots older citizens understand how civil society is involved in the MIPÄA review process, a short paragraph would be welcome at the top of the civil society declaration to explain how NGOs and researchers are consulted during the joint Forum declaration drafting process and how the declaration is then used to bring the voice of civil society to policy makers.
The relevance of the MIPAA 2022 Ministerial Declaration for older women
Overall, the Ministerial Declaration covers the main issues of concern for all older persons, but political commitments are made to tackle gender inequality in old age in only a few specific policy areas. Although policy makers consider that progress has been achieved with regard to the implementation of the MIPAA/RIS in the past 5 years, the reality at grassroots level may look quite different in particular for some groups of older women and the oldest group.
National policy makers’ commitments tend to focus on boosting the potential of older persons to work longer, live autonomously for longer and contribute to their communities as workers, volunteers and consumers. The specific references to gender equality are limited to a few general remarks on the need to address gender inequality in access to employment, pension and old age income. Although policy makers commit to mainstreaming gender in all their ageing related policy work, it is not clear what they concretely propose to tackle the increasing difficulties and inequalities faced by older women, especially the oldest old in today’s context of rapidly accelerating climate change, rapid digital transformation, health crises and pandemics, and more recently armed conflicts and resulting energy and food crises.
We understand that the Ministerial Declaration is a highly aspirational list of political commitments developed through a lengthy drafting process that establishes common goals which have to be agreed by all UNECE countries. For that reason, although we are disappointed that older women, especially the oldest old who constitute the vast majority of the 80+ (the fastest growing population group), are not given more specific attention in the final declaration, we are pleased to see several references to older persons’ human rights and the attention paid to elder abuse. We warmly welcome the renewed commitment of policy makers to take action to combat this egregious and widely spread violation of older persons’ human rights endured by too many older women and still widely tolerated by society.
However we miss a clear commitment to protect older persons’ rights through the adoption of a UN instrument on the rights of older persons and deeply regret that no progress has been achieved in the UNECE countries to support such a Human Rights instrument after more than 10 years of discussion in the UN Open Ended Working Group on Ageing.
For all these reasons we wonder to what extent the commitments listed in the MIPAA 2022 Ministerial Conference will deliver real progress for older women in the coming five years.
The relevance of the civil society/research joint declaration for older women
Although we assume the joint declaration is addressed to the Ministerial conference, we regret that the document is drafted in a rather technical and abstract language which is not easily accessible to older persons at the grassroots, including those who are active advocates at local and national level.
We agree and support the comments made in the joint declaration on many issues raised in the Ministerial declaration but we do not understand why the crucial issue of elder abuse was not extensively covered in the civil society/researchers declaration. OWN Europe contributed input, notably on the need to address elder abuse, in response to a call for feedback on the draft Forum declaration. Our call was stressed again during the Forum discussion, however we had been told that it was not necessary to cover elder abuse in the Forum declaration because it was already addressed in the Ministerial declaration. We struggle to understand this point since elder abuse is such a harsh violation of older persons’ human rights, and on the actual day of the Forum (15 June) the UN Secretary General launched the new UN Guide entitled: Tackling abuse of older people: five priorities for the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing 2021–2030 which aims to confront the growing problem of elder abuse. WHO research estimates that every year 1 in 6 people aged 60 years and older experience some form of abuse, with 2 in 3 staff in institutions such as nursing homes and other long-term care facilities admitting to committing abuse in the past year. Like many other forms of violence, elder abuse has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Abuse of older people is an injustice, which can have serious consequences, including premature mortality, physical injuries, depression, cognitive decline and poverty,” said Etienne Krug, Director of WHO’s Department of Social Determinants of Health. And with rapidly ageing population in many countries, WHO expects this growing trend to continue.
We are however pleased that several issues of concerns for older women were included in the Joint declaration mainly commenting on/ highlighting issues raised in the Ministerial Declaration. These include the need to mainstream gender in all relevant policies to tackle inequalities, a call for the recognition of unpaid care work which would help tackle gender inequalities in pensions, the need to raise awareness and understanding of how ageism, sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination disadvantage older women even more than men, the need to pay more attention and improve understanding of the needs and challenges faced by the oldest old amongst whom two-thirds are women, including through better gender disaggregated data collection on the oldest old and opening clinical trials to older poly-medicated patients of both sexes.
While we understand that the NGOs and researchers were merely reacting to a draft Ministerial declaration, we regret that the Joint Forum was not able to bring in some new views based on citizens’ experience at the grassroots. Organised civil society has an advocacy role to play to challenge policy makers with views that may sometimes be disruptive. It was thanks to a broad civil society campaign and the work done by WHO that the UN became aware of the severe violations of human rights of older persons during the early months of the Covid 19 pandemic. And as indicated given the importance of mobilising policy makers to combat elder abuse, we feel that this issue deserved to be given higher visibility in the NGO/Research joint declaration.
Furthermore social protection is a right for all people from the cradle to the grave. But with austerity policies and crisis responses to the pandemic and ongoing conflicts policy makers seem increasingly to consider population ageing as a burden to both society and to social protection systems rather than to value older persons as assets for and within their communities. It is our role as NGOs to remind them about such shared fundamental principles.
Ahead of the UNIDOP2022, to pay justice to the resilience and contributions of older persons in Europe, the joint declaration could have called on national policy makers, UN entities, UN Women, and civil society/researchers to pay due attention to older women, including the oldest old in all relevant policies. This includes the Agenda 2030 and the SDGs which must be inclusive of older women across their life course and ensuring gender equality for women of all ages as described in the Secretary-General’s report of September 2021 that established the UN objectives for the next 25 years.
Finally we feel that the implementation of the MIPAA policy commitments would be greatly supported by a UN legally binding instrument to protect the human rights of older persons. This has been a claim by NGOs worldwide for more than 10 years and we are sorry to see that the civil society actors engaged in the MIPAA/RIS for Europe review have not yet been able to convince UNECE Ministers that such an instrument would be complementary to the MIPAA and is needed now more than ever to ensure respect for the human rights of older women and men and dignity for all in old age.
Drafted on behalf of OWN Europe by Laura Christ, Francesca Carpenedo, Joke de Ruiter-Zwanikken, Sylvia Beales Gelber, Bridget Penhale and Anne-Sophie Parent
Contact person: Anne-Sophie Parent, Chair OWN Europe
22/06/15 The lack of visibility of older people in humanitarian contexts
By Bridget Penhale, Reader Emerita in Mental Health of Older People, University of East Anglia, UK
Within the current Ukrainian context, it would appear that many older people have decided to stay in the country and may even be trapped in war zones. Older women may not wish to leave their partners or dependent relatives behind. Or they may not be able to leave due to health conditions, mobility problems or the traumatic effects of the conflict. A UN convention on the human rights of older persons must pay attention to the gender dimensions of old age/later life and also include much-needed acknowledgement of the higher risks of rights violations that older persons face in situations of natural disaster, pandemic health crises and conflict zones.
In the face of the Ukraine war, more than 6 million people are estimated to have fled Ukraine and many more are internally displaced within the country, including an estimated one million children. Some of those affected will move to stay in neighbouring countries, many more are likely to continue their journey(s) onwards to Western Europe and elsewhere.
The vast majority of displaced individuals are women, girls and boys. In addition to women and children, many of those more recently displaced are older people (mostly older women) and persons with disabilities, often from under-privileged socio-economic backgrounds. Some of these people have been recently reported as those who were reluctant to leave during previous phases of the crisis due to a lack of financial means to resettle elsewhere, or mobility impairments, as well as individuals who were/have been isolated or were unable to leave conflict areas for a time.
It is estimated that over 15% of the population of Ukraine are internally displaced people. Although comparatively there are fewer older persons who are refugees/IDPs within displaced populations (around 4-5% of refugees are aged over 60; some 6% of IDPs are older people), it is recognised that there is a lack of visibility of older people in humanitarian contexts. This may be due to problems in registration processes (lack of mobility and/or documentation, lack of literacy and language barriers), but it is also clear that it in general terms it is predominantly (younger) women and children who are visible in humanitarian settings and aid efforts may be principally directed at these groups. This appears to be the current case in the context of Ukraine.
Leaving a country for economic reasons is of course very different to leaving because of a need to escape war/conflict, with a very real and apparent fear of death. And within such conflict settings there are likely to be high levels of violence, abuse and neglect at interpersonal (rather than institutional/societal) levels.
Additionally, within the current Ukrainian context, it would appear that many older people have decided to stay in the country and may even be trapped in war zones. Generally, men, including those who are older, are not able to leave the country as they are expected to fight and contribute to the war effort. Older women may not wish to leave their country of birth/or where they have spent a lifetime or to start anew in a different country or location or even to leave partners or dependent relatives. Further, however, they may not be able to leave easily due to health conditions, mobility problems or the traumatic effects of the conflict. But as in so many situations, older people are rendered invisible and rationing of resources, even those deemed essential and coming from aid organisations may mean that crucial needs for assistance are not met. Even within the context of the humanitarian crisis, violations of the rights of older persons are apparent and older women may face particular risks of sexual violence, abuse and neglect within zones of active conflict. In her 2019 report to the UN Human Rights Council the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Kornfeld-Matte called the lack of timely data a barrier to inclusion of older persons in humanitarian action.
The COVID-19 pandemic crisis laid bare, and in many respects amplified, critical human rights protection gaps for older persons that have existed and been perpetuated for many decades. These include high levels of ageism and discrimination based on older age, lack of social protection and access to health services, lack of autonomy and participation in decision-making, and absence of freedom from violence, neglect and abuse.
In our considered view these egregious violations of human rights can only be remedied by the creation of a UN convention on the human rights of older persons. Such a convention must pay attention to the gender dimensions of old age/later life and also include much-needed acknowledgement of the higher risks of rights violations that older persons face in situations of natural disaster, pandemic health crises and conflict zones.
22-06-15 Statement to the MIPAA 2022 Joint Forum of Civil Society and Scientific Research in Rome on behalf of Older Women’s Networks of Italy and Europe – delivered by Francesca Carpenedo
Whilst recognising that the clear policy directions of Development, Health and the Enabling environment within MIPPA has helped tackle many issues since it was first launched 20 years ago, with some governments developing strategies and policies to address these issues, much remains to be done to ensure the rights of older women and men are fully respected and that all benefit from progress made. This will require short and long term measures to meet the new challenges and urgent needs faced by older persons due to the on-going pandemic and geopolitical situation in Europe, as recognised in the Ministerial Final Declaration, and clear linkages with the promises to older women and men made by UN Member States with the adoption in 2015 of the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals .
A promise has been made to Leave No One Behind. This means older persons cannot and must not be left behind, including the oldest old. We call on governments and policy makers to be true to this promise and take strong action to combat age discrimination and ageism in their policies. We call for sufficient resources to:
- mitigate female poverty in older age as a long due recognition of the huge contribution to society made by women all along their life, including in crisis time as today, through long hours of poorly paid jobs, voluntary work and unpaid care which put them at a higher risk of poverty in older age. Ensure a life course and intersectional approach to poverty mitigation, considering the specific risks to migrant older women, LGBTI individuals, widows and so forth.
- ensure access to accessible and affordable health and long-term care, including preventative and rehabilitative services for all, in all care settings, including care at home or, if wished, in long-term care residential settings. Too many older women cannot afford the health and long-term care services their condition requires, and with unregulated care settings face a higher risk of neglect and abuse.
- promote available and affordable life-long learning opportunities in older age, particularly in relation to new technologies, to enable older women to remain connected to a rapidly changing IT world, be supported to contribute for longer, have greater independence and be alert to the potential of fraud. Equally ensure access to services for those who do not have, or cannot use IT.
- provide accessible services to monitor, prevent and adequately deal with elder abuse in the home, in residential/nursing care and in the community.
Ensure proper protection to older victims of abuse and gender based violence, assess and prevent femicide of older women, offering appropriate refuge accommodation as necessary to victims of all ages.
- ensure a life course and intersectional approach to employment and pension provision , including the regular collection of and disaggregation of data on age, gender, disability, sexual orientation and ethnicity relating to later life/older age to monitor the impact of intersectionality of age, gender and other forms of discrimination, and the different ways that women and men live their lives, in order to develop services that meet the needs of all.
While recognising that the MIPPA is not a human rights document it can be used by policy makers as a monitoring tool to measure their policies’ contributions toward the sustainable development goals and universal commitment to respect human rights for all and to leave no one behind. This is of particular and increasing importance to the millions of older women and men across the world who risk being marginalised and excluded through/due to lack of attention to their human rights and incomplete data which misses out older ages in monitoring of global, regional and national frameworks provided by the 2030 Agenda and human rights agreements.
2022-06-15: Elder Abuse in the time and the aftermath of Coronavirus (COVID)-19
By Bridget Penhale, Reader Emerita in Mental Health of Older People, University of East Anglia, UK
Although awareness of elder abuse has increased during the COVID-19 crisis, little positive concrete action appears to have resulted. Levels of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation remain at high levels across Europe and throughout the world. As we mark WEAAD this year, we need to renew pledges and develop concerted actions to counter all forms of violence towards older persons, wherever and whenever it occurs.
All sorts of humanitarian crises and emergencies, including those involving lockdowns or confinements, can lead to increased incidence of domestic violence including intimate partner violence, gender-based violence and all types of elder abuse (Chew and Ramdas 2005; Perel-Levin, 2019; Schneider et al 2016; WHO 2020b). In relation to older people, this includes physical, sexual, psychological and emotional forms of abuse, as well as financial abuse and neglect. Older women are likely to be particularly at risk in relation to intimate partner violence, psychological/emotional and sexual abuse during an extended period of social isolation and confinement (WHO 2020a). Those older people who live with family members or other relatives may also be at increased risk of harm, including situations of neglect if households encounter financial difficulties, perhaps due to loss of employment or other forms of income, or other unavoidable stressors (Makaroun et al 2020).
Further, during the pandemic health crisis posed by the Coronavirus (Covid-19), older people may have had very limited possibilities to seek or access help (Storey and Rogers 2020); this may have been due to mobility and physical health issues but also due to other care and support needs such as those relating to mental health problems or cognitive impairment(s). In some situations, individuals may have had to stay in confinement or lockdown or be sheltering in place for longer because of their increased health risks from Covid-19 and they were not always able to easily leave a situation.
Additionally, access to health and/or care and support services, either resulting from any prior existing need, or additional needs for services and support arising during the time of the pandemic crisis (or subsequently), were quite limited (Makaroun et al 2020). This could be due to restrictions on movement and lockdown, but it is also apparent that provision of some care/support and even health services were restricted or withdrawn if deemed to be non-essential. In some situations, this was also due to re-direction of resources by services to pandemic related provision if this was considered to be of higher priority for organisations. Isolation of older people in their homes, or when living with others could also lead to an escalation of risk and of worsening pre-existing situations of abuse and neglect. Such risks of an increase in violence and abuse – and also neglect – for older people were realised during the Covid-19 pandemic, and although research on elder abuse within the context of the pandemic has been relatively limited, due to a number of reasons, some work has been undertaken (for example Chang and Levy 2021, Yan et al 2022) or is underway. It would seem that reported incidence of violence and abuse initially appeared to drop in relation to reports and referrals to agencies that dealt with such abuse, but that subsequently, as reporting mechanisms were adjusted to account for the crisis, reports increased beyond levels ordinarily expected for the relevant period, particularly in relation to reports concerning institutional settings (see, for example, Lloyd-Smith et al 2021). Calls to helplines relating to abuse also increased during the early stages of lockdown and in many instances have continued to occur at higher levels.
Within the pandemic crisis, some people continued to experience abusive situations of different types, whilst for others these situations occurred for the first time, in part due to the enforced confinement and associated stressors within the crisis situation that developed with the pandemic. Individuals who lived alone could also be at a heightened risk of financial abuse and exploitation. This included scams/individuals accessing the elder’s money, even those ostensibly offered to provide assistance or to purchase necessary items for people.
However institutional settings in which older people live (care and nursing homes) also posed increased risk of abuse and neglect during the pandemic (UN 2020). This was in part due to situations in which there was a lack of external scrutiny or even regular contact with the outside world, for example no physical visits permitted inside the care setting. In addition, resource issues such as staff shortages due to illness and/or self-isolation due to exposure to the virus may mean that the care provided is limited and sub-standard, or that staff are not subject to the same level of supervision and management as normal. Evidence has been accruing about situations that have arisen in relation to abuse and neglect that have occurred within care settings during the crisis and which resulted in very high mortality rates within such settings in several different countries (see for example, Beaulieu et al 2020; Beaulieu et al 2021; Costa-Font et al 2021; Parker 2021).
As with other forms of domestic violence and abuse, elder abuse in the time of the coronavirus posed specific challenges across many different levels (micro, meso and macro – see Bennett et al 1997) and an ecological framework in which violence can be fully considered is much needed here (Krug et al 2002; Sethi et al 2011). However, there are some specific issues that are distinctive in relation to elder abuse at the time of this pandemic that need to be acknowledged. One key area of difference from other forms of domestic abuse occurring during the pandemic period concerns institutional settings, as already indicated. Additionally, from early on in the pandemic it was recognised that generally older people and those with certain existing health conditions were/are at increased risk of adverse reactions to the virus (if contracted) and that there was also a further heightened likelihood of death from the virus or related sequelae for other health conditions.
One consequence of this was a rise in levels of ageist attitudes and behaviours towards older persons in many countries across the world (Fraser et al 2020; Seifert, 2020). Unusually, the UN Secretary-General issued a Policy brief in May 2020 on the impact of Covid-19 on older people (UN 2020a), in which the high levels of ageism, the impact of viral contagion on both institutional settings and the individuals living in them, and increased rates of elder abuse and neglect (in all settings) were acknowledged. A call for action to counter such devastating impacts and for increased attention to and promotion of the rights of older people was included in the brief. The policy brief was issued over two years ago and gained 146 signatories from UN member states in initial response to and support of the brief – 42 of these were from Europe, with the EU as a separate signatory; there were 51 signatories from UNECE member states (UN 2020b). The response to the brief contained the following statement:
‘We therefore commit to fully promoting and respecting the dignity and rights of older people and to mitigate the negative impacts during and after the COVID-19 pandemic on their health, lives, rights and wellbeing. We further commit to working with all partners to strengthen global and national targeted responses to address the needs and rights of older persons and foster more inclusive, equitable, resilient and age-friendly societies.’
However, despite this statement being agreed by signatories since that time little positive concrete action appears to have resulted. And in respect of the UN World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD), which is marked annually on 15th June, levels of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation remain at high levels across Europe and throughout the world.
As we mark WEAAD this year, we need to renew pledges and develop concerted actions to counter all forms of violence towards older persons, wherever and whenever it occurs.
Generally, governments have an obligation to protect older people from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation (wherever it occurs) and should have appropriate measures in place to do so. However, in the absence of any specific legal instrument (at a UN or universal level) that specifies the rights of older people, it may be very difficult to enforce such an obligation (Williams 2021). Although there are regional conventions on such rights covering both Africa and Latin America, not all countries in these areas have ratified such protocols. There are no other regional conventions in existence. In addition, during a time of an unprecedented public health crisis at global level in relation to the Coronavirus-19 pandemic, affecting all regions of the world, and the lack of specific pandemic-related crisis or disaster planning ahead of time, many countries struggled to contain the pandemic. Further, dealing with the violence-related pandemic within the pandemic – sometimes referred to as the ‘shadow pandemic’ (Sri et al 2021; UN Women 2020) if it occurred, was more likely to happen at a reactive level of ‘fire-fighting’ rather than any more pro-active preventive measures. This does not mean that attention should not have happened in relation to some of the potential areas for preventive work, but rather that some of this much-needed work needs to occur somewhat later when the immediate public health crises caused by the pandemic have receded, or at least diminished to less challenging and more manageable levels.
Evidently there is a need for further research in relation to the effects of Covid-19 on elder abuse in both institutional and domestic settings. This is in terms of prevalence and also the nature and types of abuse which occurred during the pandemic period; international comparative research, or at least research that is comparable across different countries would also be highly beneficial here. Further, if the aim of assisting older people to live lives free from violence, abuse, neglect and/or exploitation is to be achieved, then attention must be paid to this urgent problem as soon as is possible to achieve. Only then can full attention be paid to addressing the inequalities experienced by older women and preventing the violations of human rights facing them throughout Europe and indeed across the world. The need for a UN convention on the human rights of older persons has not diminished and in many respects, as illustrated by experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic, is more urgent than ever.
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