Bringing discussions of abuse – be it sexual, physical, verbal or emotional – into public forums is often a tricky issue, one that in many cases is avoided for the sake of maintaining a sense of comfort. As challenging as it can be to discuss ‘abuse' as a general issue, this challenge typically becomes more potent when we seek to discuss the abuse of ‘vulnerable' groups such as young children and, to an even greater extent, the elderly.
In a number of communities across the Caribbean, we have come to place an extremely high value on youth, moving away from traditions that elevated our elders to a place of respect, and in essence obscuring their faces, silencing their voices and by extension, increasing their vulnerability. Given the dimension of gender, which often places women at a disadvantage in the allocation of, and access to power, the vulnerability of aged communities becomes an even more pressing issue for numbers of elderly women. Even within most organizations and education programs whose work is dedicated to social advancement, issues related to the elderly often go unaddressed.
In the 2001 text, Health Issues in the Caribbean, mention is made of the growing life expectancy across the English-speaking Caribbean, with a current life expectancy rate of approximately 75 years. This means that, thanks to social advances such as increased access to health care, larger numbers of our population are living longer. What then are we doing to protect the lives and interests of this section of our societies?
The vulnerability of elderly women recently came sharply into focus in Jamaica with charges being made by female residents of an ‘old age home' in a financially depressed community that they are often verbally, and in one case sexually assaulted by members of the surrounding community. One of the most shocking elements of the newspaper article was not, however, the allegations of abuse, but rather the dismissive manner in which authorities responded to the allegations. The elderly women were charged with unnecessarily seeking to stir up trouble, with a key authority stating that the charges were untrue because she would have known about these violations if they were indeed taking place.
Such a response does not take into account one of the key characteristics of abuse: it usually goes unseen, and by extension, unreported. The hidden nature of abuse is exacerbated in cases where factors such as age, poverty, and inadequate social support systems are at play. Many elderly persons virtually live in obscurity, put aside by their families and communities. The invisibility of this group puts them at particular risk.
While a number of goodwill organizations typically intervene in providing assistance and company for the elderly, we as a society are yet to fully integrate the issue of the abuse of the elderly into discussions of sexual and reproductive health. Our inability to view the elderly as sexual beings therefore has the spill-over effect of blinding us to many cases in which their sexuality is being violated.
Any truly successful society is one in which all members are valued, irregardless of their age, gender or social status. Issues such as the sexual health of the elderly must necessarily be integrated into discussions of HIV/AIDS as well as broader sexual health discussions if we are to truly meet the goals of development.