Guarding against elder abuse in church

Aged-care chaplain shares tips for caring for older people

We are horrified by abuse, doubly so where abuse has occurred within churches. We are active in apologising, making reparations and doing all in our power to prevent abuse.

Prevention requires knowledge, yet many Christians are unaware of elder abuse.

The church is vulnerable to a particular form of elder abuse, specifically spiritual neglect.

The World Health Organisation defines elder abuse as a “single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person.”

WHO estimates that 15.7 per cent of people aged 60 years and older are subjected to some form of abuse, while noting that only one in 24 cases of elder abuse is reported. Five forms of elder abuse are commonly identified: physical, neglect, psychological/emotional, financial and sexual. Often multiple types occur simultaneously.

Financial elder abuse by children is the most common – and abuse in aged-care facilities the least common.

It is important to realise that not all elder abuse is malicious. It can occur within a loving marriage, where one partner is the carer for the other but does not have the capacity to provide adequate care, and so neglect ensues. Finally, as we have learned about other forms of abuse, it is critical not to assume that elder abuse will not happen in “our” social group or in “our” local church.

Indeed, the church is vulnerable to a particular form of elder abuse, specifically spiritual neglect.

We can create a hierarchy of love, with young people at the top and elders at the base.

Scripture teaches that all people have value, and therefore to abuse any person is abhorrent. “Love your neighbour as yourself” does not simply prohibit abuse but commands love for our fellow humans.

Yet we can create a hierarchy of love, with young people at the top and elders at the base. For example, we may quote “let the little children come to me” but neglect “honour your mother and your father.”

What priority does your church place on ministry to people under 20 compared with people over 80? A simple measure is to compare the number of staff allocated or hours of ministry given to each demographic.

We have a responsibility to pass the gospel on to young people, but should this be at the expense of the gospel to older people? If Jesus’s life is the model for our ministry, we need to consider how much of his ministry focused on children? We cannot export our responsibilities to older people to organisations such as Anglicare, Baptist Care, HammondCare and other Christian-based organisations around Australia.

The good news is there are resources and training for ministry to older people. For example, Anglican Deaconess Ministries in Sydney runs a subject on ministry to older people, Morling College Sydney has a chaplaincy programme and St Marks in Canberra provides training in aged-care ministry (up to MA level).

This year HammondCare and the Bible Society released ‘Faith for Life’, resources for ministry to people living with dementia. There is also a useful clip on myths about ministry to people living with dementia.* So, there are resources for ministry to older people both for individuals and churches.

The starting point must be to love older people, in our congregations and communities.

While spiritual elder abuse should be a key concern for individuals and churches, it also is important to consider how we can combat elder abuse generally. There are many practical ways we can do this.

The starting point must be to love older people, in our congregations and communities. Love will motivate us to build relationships with older people. Relationships provide older people with a safe space to raise concerns and give us the opportunity to notice the signs of elder abuse. If Betty has sat in that pew every Sunday for the past decade and is not there, then something is wrong. It could be illness, it could be lack of transport or it could be abuse, but our response should be to visit her; indeed, we should have a relationship with her.

Carer stress and isolation are predictors of elder abuse. The more support the church provides for older people and their carers, the less abuse will occur. It takes a village to care for people who are living with frailty.

The early church shone in its care for widows and orphans. This care was driven by a recognition that all people are innately valuable. This love in action is one of the major factors that contributed to the growth of the Christian faith.

We can also combat elder abuse through advocacy.

Loving older people will also motivate us to be educated and to educate our congregations and communities. As with other forms of abuse, there are signs and symptoms of elder abuse, but unless we educate ourselves and those around us, we will not notice and be able to respond appropriately. There are government websites that provide detailed information on elder abuse, symptoms and report lines.

We then need to use our education to be actively aware of, and to report, elder abuse. Such reporting can be done through elder abuse hotlines or directly to the police.

We can also combat elder abuse through advocacy. Elder abuse is still comparatively unknown, so the church can be proactive in guarding against elder abuse among its own number (does your denomination’s compulsory training covers elder abuse?), as well as the championing the prevention of elder abuse within society.

Finally, loving older people will naturally include sharing Jesus with people of faith and those who do not yet know him.

Ben Boland is an aged care chaplain, co-author of ‘Jesus Loves Me’ (part of the HammondCare and Bible Society ‘Faith for Life’ suite). He also writes and speaks about aged care ministry.

* Ben Boland co-authored one of the Faith for Life resources and is also responsible for the YouTube clip.

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