In June 2006 an article in the Times newspaper reported on a parliamentary Health Committee inquiry, set up in 2003 and prompted by estimates that up to 50,000 of Britain’s elderly were subject to abuse from relatives and carers. The inquiry declared the abuse of the elderly to be Britain’s “last hidden abuse scandal.” This weekend the Observer has reported on former health minister, Paul Burstow’s concern that figures show as many as 370,000 older people were abused in their home last year – a “hidden national scandal” – and that the number is likely to increase to nearly half a million by the end of the decade. These figures are based on data extrapolated from a survey of 2000 people in 2007. Nevertheless, they suggest that this is a story that has captured the imagination of those in power.
Frequently when I tell people what I do, they hear “parent abuse” and assume I am talking about “elder abuse”. This fits with the notion that children’s abuse of their parents is too shocking to contemplate, too outside our field of expectation or experience. We hear much more about elder abuse. Initially shocked and disbelieving, the public have taken the idea of elder abuse on board and are generally familiar with what it might mean. There are vocal and well organised campaigning groups to inform the public and influence policy and practice in this area of relationships or social care.
Once I have explained that my interest lies with a younger section of the population, I am asked whether these are the same individuals. Is it the case that the teenagers we see and work with will continue to humiliate, torment, manipulate and terrify their parents as they get older – for the next forty, fifty years or even longer? Undoubtedly there will be some for whom, tragically, this is the case. A quick look on message boards or TV programmes bringing the horrors of life into our daytime lives offers plenty of examples of families who have lived with abuse and violence from teenagers who are now adult children, continuing long after they have left home.
There will be some who look for links between all forms of family violence. Parent abuse cannot be tied down to one set of circumstances or correlates, and features such as substance use, mental health issues or generalised violence, may also be linked to elder abuse. But we should remember too that there are characteristics that make these two distinct groups. The elderly bring their own vulnerability and may be subject to abuse from carers as well as, or instead of relatives; whereas child to parent violence has by definition a familial aspect, while also inverting traditional understandings of power.
For me one of the most important things to remember though is that the growth in help for families means that parents are not condemned to live with their fear for the rest of their lives. Support programmes – whether based in the statutory or voluntary field, whether working with groups or individuals, whether long standing or just beginning – are showing that the violence and abuse can come to an end, and family relationships be restored. At times when elder abuse is prominent in the news, it seems to me even more important that we should carry this message of hope to the parents with whom we work while campaigning to bring a higher profile nationally to the realities of child to parent violence.