Open our eyes and ears…

Jean to all intents and purposes was a confident, articulate and outgoing individual. She put a good face to the world with a close group of friends whom she had known for years and who all still kept in touch with each other even if less frequently. Jean was in her late 80s and lived a quiet suburban life with her son and daughter-in-law. As her health declined over the years and particularly following a stroke she needed more and more support to manage the ordinariness of living. But she got there and often with a humour beyond her conviction and a positivity which was the object of much admiring comment. She went out as much as she could, attending a local lunch club for older people and was also consistent in her attendance at her local church.

That was the Jean that the outside world saw.

The real Jean was a woman whose life had been turned upside down since her son lost his job and came to stay with his mother, bringing along with him his wife who Jean had never really seen eye to eye with. After a brief honeymoon where everyone danced on the eggshells of shared living, being polite and sensitive to accommodating the rhythms and routines of others, things began to get first moody and then heated and angry. It started with small verbal barbs and putdowns and soon escalated into loud arguments and verbal challenges; open and subtle domination on the part of her son and snide, belittling asides from her daughter-in-law.

Jean began to retreat into her own world, using silence as a weapon to create absence in her own home. She watched her words so much that she stopped conversing and just watched the television when she was at home. The domination reached a new level when her son, on the pretext that he thought Jean was developing dementia, persuaded her to allow him to be her Power of Attorney, and then took charge of her pension card. Jean was given pocket money whilst her son’s taste in fine wine developed literally at her expense.

Jean is the victim of abuse and harm. She is hidden, in part by her own sense of shame and embarrassment, in part by the inability of people around her to think the unthinkable and to see the signs of abuse.

Today (Sat 16thJune)  is the United Nations World Elder Abuse Awareness Day – a day when we reflect on the harm which countless millions of older people experience across the world.

Scotland has some fantastic legislation which protects and supports the victims of harm and abuse. But of course, legislation is not what ultimately safeguards individuals who for whatever reason might be vulnerable. What protects is a community which recognises the small signs that things might not be right.

It is relatively easy to recognise the victims of physical harm, albeit that bruises and marks are often hidden. It is much harder to recognise the countless older women and men who are the victims of sexual abuse, psychological and financial harm or are the objects of hatred. But sadly they live in every community of Scotland. They live in homes with threadbare carpets and lace curtains, they live in streets of Georgian townhouses and Victorian tenements , behind quaint scenic village doors and in newly built housing estates.

Abuse knows every village and town, every social standing and occupational group, every ethnic heritage and every sexual identity.

Today look around you. Listen for the dropped remark and quiet word. Hear the fear in a trembling voice or a shed tear. Spot the furtive anxiety and desire to be invisible and small.

Don’t dismiss your intuitive concerns but take a moment to think about whether you need to ask, to speak, to do. Jean and countless like her depend on our eyes, our voices and our actions. Thankfully in Jean’s case her home care worker spotted the signs and now Jean is free.

Dr Donald Macaskill

@DrDMacaskill