14 June, 2012

Mistreatment of Older People in Ireland

Held on June 15th each year, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) supports the United Nations Plan of Action which recognises the significance of elder abuse as a public health and human rights concern.

Elder abuse is defined 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 or violates their human and civil rights (World Health Organisation 2002).

Categories of Mistreatment of Older People

6 categories of mistreatment have been identified by clinical and research professionals involved with this subject, and those categories exclude crimes committed against older people by strangers and self-neglect on the part of older persons. These categories are referred to in St Patrick’s University Hospital’s policy regarding the subject of Mistreatment of Older People.  

Physical abuse – this includes such acts as being slapped, pushed or physically restrained.

Emotional/Psychological abuse – this includes being insulted, threatened or socially excluded.

Neglect – this includes such acts as refusal or failure of a carer to help with activities of daily living, such as required personal care assistance.

Sexual abuse – this includes being talked to or touched in a sexual way that is unwelcome.

Financial abuse – this includes having money or other possessions stolen or being coerced into signing over ownership of property.

Discriminatory abuse – this includes expressions in word or deed of ageism, sexism, racism or other such discriminatory slurs on personhood.

Prevalence of Mistreatment of Older People in Ireland

Using the World Health Organisation’s definition of elder abuse referred to above, the National Centre for the Protection of Older People (NCPOP), with the support of the Health Service Executive, has carried out a national prevalence survey to provide statistics on overall rates of elder abuse and of types of such abuse in Ireland, and the findings of this research were published in 2010 in a document entitled Abuse and Neglect of Older People in Ireland: Report on the National Study of Elder Abuse and Neglect. The study focused on older people living in the community and excluded those residing in residential care settings (2,021 older people were interviewed, giving a response rate of 83%). Five forms of elder abuse - including all of the above-listed categories with the exception of discriminatory abuse - were considered, and the term ‘mistreatment’ is used in the study to refer to all types. Some of the key findings were:

  • The overall prevalence of mistreatment in the 12 months prior to survey interviews being conducted was 2.2% (applying this statistic to the general population of those aged 65 years and older, it is estimated by the researchers that the number of older people who have experienced mistreatment is 10, 021).
  • At 1.3%, financial abuse was the most frequently reported form of mistreatment. This was followed by psychological abuse (1.2%), physical abuse (0.5%), neglect (0.3%), and sexual abuse(0.05%).
  • Females (2.4%) were more likely that males (1.9%) to report experiences of mistreatment; and people aged 70 years or more experienced double the level of overall mistreatment that those aged between 65 and 69 years did.
  • Respondents who reported acts of mistreatment most frequently identified adult children as perpetrators (50%), followed by other relatives (24%), and a spouse/partner (20%).
  • A majority of older people who reported mistreatment felt their experiences had a serious or at least a moderate impact on them; and over one third of participants did not report the mistreatment to anyone.

In recent years the Health Service Executive (HSE) has established a dedicated service for the protection of older people, with senior case workers in this field employed in nearly all catchment areas. The HSE Elder Abuse Report is published annually and there has been a year on year increase in the numbers of cases referred to the dedicated service since these figures began to be reported in 2008 (1,887 cases in 2008; 1,916 in 2009; 2,111 in 2010; 2,302 in 2011). 


Legislation explicitly dealing with elder abuse does not exist in Ireland. However, as is made clear in Elder Abuse and Legislation in Ireland, published by NCPOP (2009), there are various laws in the following categories that may be used to address the issue, in terms of protecting older people who may be at risk of abuse and/or in terms of prosecuting those responsible for causing abuse or neglect of older people: human rights legislation; mental health and mental capacity laws; domestic violence legislation; laws for the regulation of health and social care services and staff; laws dealing with financial support for nursing home care; equality and age discrimination acts; financial regulation and consumer protection legislation; criminal and civil laws applicable to prosecution in cases of abuse.

There is not any specific law in Ireland that requires a person to report suspicions or cases of elder abuse. Also, there is no legislation to protect individuals who report concerns about elder abuse in good faith.

Marking WEAAD 2012

To mark WEAAD this year, the National Centre for the Protection of Older People along with the HSE and the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse are co-hosting an event at the Health Sciences Centre, Belfield, UCD, on Thursday, June 14th 2012. View more information