Joan Bakewell: It is easy to abuse those too vulnerable to complain

Everyone caring for an older person must know that physical or verbal abuse will land them in trouble
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The Independent Online

Why do little children pull the wings of insects? Because they can. They have the power and the curiosity to do so. Why do pigs hunt down the runt of the litter? Because in the pecking order of nature, to have someone clearly weaker than you, endorses your own power. Why do some men beat up their wives in the privacy of their own homes? Because they have the need to assert their will and the opportunity to do so undetected.

Hierarchies of power and dominance exist in human society every bit as much as in the animal kingdom. Civilisation is the way we tame our impulses to exploit. But civilisation wears thin when we have the need and the chance to assert our own superiority.

Our supposed civilised society is nowhere more culpable than in the appalling treatment regularly meted out to the very old. Over and over, the cry goes out from charities, and concerned families and carers, that there is widespread and serious abuse of the very old. Now comes another report, this time from the King's Institute of Gerontology in London, launched in association with Action on Elder Abuse and based on two years' research, that declares that the violence, bullying and neglect of the old are far more extensive and serious than we ever thought.

Today is the second World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. You probably didn't know that. There are some 450 events taking place across the UK and Ireland. A host of public figures are giving their support, often motivated by harrowing personal experience. Tony Robinson is one such. He tells of a very old man dying in hospital who couldn't see and could hardly move. It had been so long since the staff had given him anything to drink he'd been reduced to weeing in his hand to moisten his lips. How degrading and shaming is that? And it could happen to any of our ageing parents. It could one day happen to us.

I have been among those, especially women, keen to assert that being old isn't as terrible as all that. Indeed, it can be full of joy and energy, opportunity and pleasure. With life expectancy getting longer, plenty of us are able to enjoy active and fruitful old age, often in good health and free of the stress and worry that can blight the middle-aged. And I stand four-square by that opinion. There are far more of us than ever now in their seventies and eighties enjoying the good life. And we need to say so loud and clear, in order to counteract the fear of growing old promoted by the trivial values of the consumer society.

None the less, it is also true that to be very, very old is really difficult. It is difficult for those who are losing their senses, sight going, hearing fading, limbs creaking. It is also difficult for the families who have loved and cherished a mother and father as they grew older, but now can hardly recognise the person they once knew. Old loves and loyalties are strained to the limit by their needs. The dependence on carers, and the decisions to be made about care homes, all place an enormous burden on the most loving of children. So what about the less than loving? If there isn't already a lifetime's affection, if there have been quarrels and disagreement down the years, we can well see that a shift in family wellbeing can put the old at the mercy of the young.

There is now a call for legislation to protect vulnerable adults. To that end you are invited to sign petitions and write to your MP ... the usual stuff that gets a campaign really rolling.

And of course that is right. Everyone on the staff of a care home or hospital, every individual responsible for an older person, must know that physical and verbal abuse will land them in trouble. There must be no doubt that to filch a few pounds from the purse of a helpless old woman is a criminal theft. Families who pressure old people to sign cheques for unexplained payments, or having taken power of attorney suddenly start emptying bank accounts, need to know that they are accountable. The law must be equally on the side of the weak, whether they are tiny children, the handicapped or the very old.

But there is one enormous snag about all this. How can it possibly be policed? Who is to collect the evidence, monitor standards, report offenders? The old have feeble memories. Their accounts can easily be challenged. They are often isolated and pathetically eager not to cause a fuss. Some are even beyond knowing how brutally they are being treated. Of course there needs to be training of carers, and awareness of the penalties any new law will involve. But there needs to be more. There needs to be a revolution of the sensibilities, of the human heart. It must simply be rooted in us to the depth of our consciences not to be unkind to the old.

Throughout many cultures, the old have suffered. Sometimes they have been celebrated and honoured. But many have been turned out of family homes, sent on pilgrimages, dumped in religious houses. None of us can have high expectations that the options will be any different for us.

Shakespeare's melancholy Jacques has it about right in his "seven ages of man" speech:

"Last scene of all,/ That ends this strange eventful history,/ Is second childishness and mere oblivion,/ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Everything except care, that should now be.