The Curse of Growing Old in Ghana Vs The Dilemma of Living in an ‘’Elderly Orphanage’’ in Finland
By James McKeown, doctoral candidate
''How dare you beat your grandma''? That was what an obviously angry passer-by could murmur as he watched a young lady push her grandmother to the floor in a village in Ghana. Does this come as a surprise to you or it is an everyday phenomenon in your community? The abuse of old people has been established to be an age-old phenomenon but has been overlooked and condoned for many years. For a long time, societies throughout the world denied the existence of abuse and neglect of old people just as they did with the issues of violence against women and abuse of children until civil society began to exert the necessary pressure to elicit action from national governments. The World Health Organization (WHO) depicts elder abuse as ''a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust that causes harm or distress to an older person''. The abuse of old people may take various forms including physical, sexual, psychological/emotional, financial and material. It may also reflect intentional or unintentional abandonment or neglect. Regrettably, older persons do not only suffer bad treatment in their homes in Ghana but also at care facilities in Finland where these senior citizens who have families live as if they are orphaned. Abuse and neglect are culturally defined phenomena that reflect distinctions between values, standards and unacceptable interpersonal behaviour. Like any other form of violence, the abuse of older persons amounts to a violation of their human rights and a significant cause of injury, illness, lost productivity, isolation and despair.
Changing social conditions have left older adults disadvantaged and vulnerable to mistreatment. Consequently, abuse of seniors is now viewed beyond isolated family violence but, it has been identified as a human and civil rights issue. The aged are devalued, rejected, stereotyped and isolated in several communities in Ghana as well as Finland. This behaviour is not in conformity with traditional expectations in a majority of Ghanaian and Finnish societies. Evidence abounds that, it was commonly the responsibility of the family to take care of the elderly, and the community held the elderly with great respect. The Elderly was a significant segment of society. The elderly people were associated with wisdom, care, and guidance. As a result, elderly people played an important role in socialising young family members and brokering of peace during conflicts. Among the people of Ghana, elderly persons counted on their children for security in old age. It is therefore widely mistakenly assumed that the elderly are well taken care of by the family.
A report published by Yle, the Finnish public broadcasting company on 19th February 2019 where the Police are investigating 30 allegations of elder care neglect which may have resulted in injuries and deaths across Finland is not just a scandal but a sordid ignominy. Indeed, it was surprisingly unpleasant to read such a story about Finland, a country which has positioned itself as the standard ‘‘poster boy’’ of everything best in the world. The maltreatment and humiliation which are sometimes suffered by older persons at care facilities in Finland are not too different from what happens at ‘’Witch Camps’’, supposedly safe sanctuaries for persons accused of witchcraft in Ghana. In some communities in Ghana, it is believed that the closest grandchild dies almost immediately after the grandparent's death. The elderly are often branded as purveyors of social ills that befall their families or villages. This belief has an immense influence on the care and attention given to elderly people in those communities. The increasing incidence of superstition and some traditional beliefs and practices have effectively combined to worsen the lot of the elderly. The practice of accusing an elderly of being a witch often results in stigmatisation, banishment and desertion by his or her family. The accused witch is left to his or her own devices, and their children and other family members feel justified in being absolved of their responsibilities of providing care and other kinds of help. Older people accused of witchcraft are mostly sent to witch camps for their safety, a situation that can be somehow regretfully likened to the ‘’old people’s homes’’ in Finland. Whereas witchcraft and other superstitions may not be the driving forces for elderly neglect in Finland, time and lack of space/apartments big enough to accommodate extended family members have often been cited.
The status of women in Ghana is mainly affected by conditions such as cultural and traditional values, gender socialisation and patriarchy. These status determinants undermine women through old age. Older women endure various forms of abuse including sexual assault. Abuse of elderly women, especially old widows, is among the most egregious of violations suffered by women in Ghana. A survey conducted by the Gender Centre in Ghana revealed that 31% of widowed respondents had been asked to marry their deceased husbands' brothers, and they had to undergo widowhood rites that included shaving off their hair, ritual baths, and confinement with ropes around their necks. It appears that female elders are violated at a higher rate than males.
The aged have received new responsibilities and pressures amid neglect and abuse. Elderly women and men are systematically forced into the role of primary caregivers for their HIV positive adult children and their orphaned grandchildren. According to a report by Help Age International, HIV and AIDS are considered more as an issue of being "affected" than of being "infected" for older people in Ghana. Older people give care to family members living with HIV, often at a high cost to their health. Instead of receiving care, the elderly have become the caregiver, particularly to their grandchildren on weekends as the case may be in Finland though others may argue the elderly delight in doing so.
Regrettably, it appears this issue of elder abuse and neglect is not going away anytime soon. Therefore, there is a need for a sustained and focused campaign against all forms of violations against older persons. Growing international recognition of this unfortunate phenomenon creates opportunities for prevention although this might be herculean. Media attention and public outcry have riveted much attention to elder abuse and neglect, but there is still much to be done.