Some abuse just isn't talked about

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 13:59 17/05/2014

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Their friends always thought they were a marvellous couple. But nobody knows what really goes on inside a marriage - and after they retired, things at home got really bad.

>> SPECIAL REPORT: Elder abuse

She'd always had a quick temper, but as they both began to grow older, she became violent.

"When you're married you accept that sort of thing - up to a certain stage," he says. "She'd be good as gold one day, and the next day - bang.

"How can you understand that?"

His face lost colour, and he developed depression. Several times, he thought about doing himself in - it would be easier than talking about it. He avoided his friends, and lost so much weight that they thought he had cancer. But he lied to his mates and he lied to his family.

He lied to his GP about what was causing his bruises and scratches, saying he kept bumping into walls - even while he grew more withdrawn and frail. Better that, than to admit what was really going on, which is that his wife abused him with her words, her nails, and her fists, and had been doing so for years.

We'll call him Stan, as he does not want to reveal his name, where in the region he lives, or even his age.

"It's nothing I want to skite about," he says.

We are not allowed to talk to his former wife, so we can't tell her side of the story. All we can tell is his - and it is a story, experts agree, that is very rarely told.

Stan wasn't the type to fight back. He never raised a fist against his wife - only pushed her away when she lost it and went for him. Those times he did push her off him, she would threaten to call the police. But why didn't he call them himself?

"Well, that's the point. Why didn't I?" he says. "I don't have an answer to that." Anyway, he was pretty sure who the police would blame if they were called out to a domestic: Him.

When he went out to meet his friends at the club, he'd go off and sit by himself, nursing a drink and avoiding their attempts to draw him on what was wrong. Until one day the weight of all that he was trying to hide got too much, and he quit lying. In the safety of his GP's office he admitted the truth about the bruises on his arms. His doctor told him, quite simply, to get out of the marriage.

"I said: 'I've got nowhere to go'. He said: "Go and see Age Concern."

That was a Friday; Stan remembers the date exactly. On Monday, he rang Age Concern and made an appointment.

"I didn't have a clue what they did. I'd seen the sign up outside and thought nothing of it, thought: 'That doesn't interest me'."

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But there, he finally found someone to talk to, and he knew that his fears and worries wouldn't go straight back home. He told his story to the advisor, and the first words out of her mouth were: "It's not OK to live like that and be treated like that."

Despite it being difficult to talk about it before, he found it easy to spill all. By the following Sunday, he was out of his home and into respite care, a safe place where he could gather his thoughts, have a rest, and figure out what to do next.

"They've done a marvellous job for me," Stan says. "They've put me on the right track, otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here today probably."

He returned home only to collect some of his belongings, though his wife did not react very well when he turned up.

"It was all my fault of course: 'You walked out'."

Now, though, their relationship is improving. "I think she's realised it's over. It's the end," he says. "It's finished. There's no way I'd go back. It would only happen again."

He wants other men, old and young, to know that just because you're a grown man doesn't mean you can't be abused in your relationship.

"You know when it's not right," he says. "But I didn't know where to go. There's plenty for women, but nothing for men. It's surprising for me, the amount of men that go through what I went through. They're always [seen as] the aggressor."

Now that he's clear of it all, he wonders why he didn't speak up sooner. He calls himself "a mug" for not doing so.

However, Jess Breeze does have an answer as to why Stan didn't tell anyone what was going on.

"It's very easy for women to seek help, for lots of reasons. But it's harder for men; they're meant to be staunch," she says.

A registered nurse, Breeze is also an elder neglect and abuse prevention co-ordinator at the Nelson branch of charitable organisation Age Concern. She says it's common for men to not even consider that their wife or partner could be inflicting serious harm on them - emotionally, mentally, or physically. But she's been dealing with a lot of men in their 80s lately, and has 27 cases open regionally, with 42 closed to date this year. She says cases are increasing, and the majority of them are financial and psychological abuse.

"Sometimes the biggest challenge is just telling someone. It's just a huge thing to do."

Although it might seem obvious for elderly people to contact an aged care organisation when something is wrong, there are still a lot of people who don't know where to go.

"They don't identify with it. 'Abuse' is a word that people don't like bandied around. So we say 'It's not OK to be treated like that' rather than use the word 'abuse'."

She says a lot of that hesitancy is down to the characteristics of those generations born around the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

"They say: 'That's just the way it goes'. Or sometimes it's shame. Sometimes they're scared they'll lose their relationship with the rest of the family, especially grandchildren. Sometimes they're scared of how they're going to manage financially."

They might blame themselves for it, and feel ashamed that the abuser is a family member. They might depend on the abuser for support, have low confidence or self-esteem, or don't want to make a fuss. They might be afraid that if they complain the abuse will get worse. They might be isolated and find it difficult to tell people, not know who to tell or where to get help, or have dementia or another illness that prevents them from saying anything at all.

Nationwide, the organisation receives more than 1000 referrals about people facing elder abuse or neglect every year. That's about three every day (they define "elder" as someone over 65, though offer help to all who ask for it).

But that may not even be the tip of the iceberg. A large community-based study in the UK reported that 2.6 per cent of older people experienced abuse every year. Extrapolated to New Zealand, that works out to two older people being abused every hour.

Nelson police were not able to say how many cases of elder abuse they had on their books, but Breeze says most people experience more than one type of neglect or abuse. Psychological abuse makes up 62 per cent. Cases of physical abuse and neglect appear in 20 per cent of cases.

Material or financial abuse occurs in half of all cases - reported cases of financial elder abuse climbed from 1100 in 2010-11 to almost 2000 in 2012-13.

"It's such a confusing thing, money," Breeze says. "And abuse isn't always intentional. People can get misled when they're in the position of power of attorney."

These sorts of things happen to men and women of every religious, ethnic, and income group, can destroy an older person's self-esteem and confidence, damage family relationships, financial security, and mental and physical health. It can also increase the likelihood that the person will need residential care.

Several horrific cases lately have reached national attention. In April a Napier woman was found guilty of failing to provide the necessities of life to her elderly mother.

Emergency services found 82-year-old Maureen Quinn on a filthy couch to which she had been confined for three years, while under the supposed care of her daughter, Jo-Ann Quinn, 51.

Dehydrated, malnourished and with a leg ulcer infested with maggots, Maureen Quinn's face was stained blue from the couch, and her left toenails were so long they had grown into her right leg. She died of pneumonia shortly after being admitted to hospital.

During the trial, it emerged that her daughter had systematically blocked access to her mother, ordering visitors off the property.

In Christchurch, a 73-year-old woman suffered eight months of brutal abuse including almost daily assaults, and was conned out of $30,000, although her family believe she lost about $90,000.

The culprit was invalid Joseph Edward Whitehead, 60, recently jailed for two years and three

months.

During the months of abuse the woman had phoned her family to tell them they were interfering and they should "butt out" - a call Whitehead forced her to make.

The woman, described as "naive and trusting", was rescued when family noticed her deteriorating health and weight.

Breeze says that as society grows busier and more fractured, people lose touch with older members of their families.

Elderly people in New Zealand don't enjoy the high status they do in other parts of the world. That loneliness can be deadly.

"A lot of our clients' families live overseas and they don't have someone that's going to be concerned about them," Breeze says.

She says it's vital that people stay in touch - with friends, neighbours, and of course family, and persist in seeking help if something is wrong.

But at least there is a happy ending for Stan. He says he's never been better.

"It's a bit late in life to be that way, but never mind," he says. "I feel sorry for anybody that's actually going through it, I really do."

He advises others in his situation to get out and see someone, as early as they can. "I was a mug, I appreciate that now, for putting up with it for so long. If I was using my nut I'd have been out of there 20 years ago.

"It used to go through my mind: 'I've got to get out of here'. But I didn't know where to go. Now I feel 100 per cent better, and my health's a lot better."

He's even put on a couple of kilos. And his depression?

"Good as gold."

FUN AND FUNDS

In recognition of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Age Concern Nelson is holding a fundraising screening of new movie Grace of Monaco on Wednesday, May 28 at 7pm in Nelson's Suter Cinema. Tickets, $20, include a glass of wine and nibbles. Pre-sale tickets only; phone 03 544 7624 or email ageconcern.nelson3@clear.net.nz

- The Nelson Mail

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