Secret violence: The silence surrounding elder abuse

Secret violence: The silence surrounding elder abuse

The average of 200 reported cases of elder abuse a year since 2012 may be the tip of the iceberg, say counsellors. Witnesses and victims both are reluctant to report it, Talking Point finds out.

It could be happening in the family right next door to you. Is it any of your business? Should you intervene? It's reckoned that only 1 in 23 cases of elder abuse worldwide are reported. Read more: The 'invisible' problem of family violence

SINGAPORE: Her son has been hitting her, stealing her money, and not letting her out of the house alone. Yet Madam Ng (not her real name), 75, quietly bears the abuse and refuses any help.

Her daughter had to call family violence specialist centre Care Corner Project StART to intervene after noticing bruises on her mother.

“During an argument, her son took the remote control and hit her head,” said Ms Kristine Lam, a senior social worker from the centre.

Mdm Ng also spoke of “not being allowed to cook, to use the washing machine and to go out on her own.” But when further pushed, she refused help – for fear of affecting ties with her son, who is unemployed and lives off her.

Sometimes, victims choose to change their statement after sharing with us, given the possible negative consequences that may follow, where they may lose the relationship.

“They may choose to remain in an abusive relationship,” Ms Lam told the programme Talking Point. (Watch the episode here.)

Elder abuse is the most under-reported type of domestic abuse worldwide, with its victims and witnesses often staying silent, says the World Health Organisation. It reckons that for every reported case in 2016, 23 others went unreported.

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Posed picture. An average of 200 elder abuse cases were reported each year here. 

In Singapore, the number of reported elderly abuse cases rose from 145 in 2008 to 170 in 2011. From 2012 to 2016, an average of 200 cases were reported each year, according to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

The Care Corner Project StART and TRANS SAFE Centre both handle around 80 elderly abuse cases annually, but counsellors says such statistics are only the tip of the iceberg.


Victims may not speak up for various reasons: They don’t know what to do, are often reliant on their abusers, or they lack the capacity to reach out to social workers or the community.

Some even blame themselves, believing that they are not good parents.  (Read more in this earlier story.)

A survey of 2,000 Singaporeans by MSF last year found that the main reason people, including witnesses, did not step forward to report such cases is because they feared it would cause families to break up.

About four in 10 of those surveyed saw family violence as a private matter, while 37 per cent were unsure of what family violence is.

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About four in 10 of those surveyed saw family violence as a private matter.

Dr Sudha Nair from PAVE, a family violence specialist centre, said it is natural for people to not want to get involved. “But we can educate them that they won’t get into trouble, that it’s a means to help someone in distress,” she said.

The elderly, she added, are a hidden group because they can be very non-visible to the community, especially the non-active, frail or vulnerable ones who usually don’t leave the house.

She has noticed a spike in enquiries last year, and an increase in severe elderly abuse cases where the victim was referred to a hospital.

The main types of elderly abuse here are psychological, physical and financial exploitation. And the impact can be devastating - leading to a sense of helplessness, isolation and depression.

There is even medical abuse, said Ms Lam, where the abuser refuses to let the victim visit a medical institution, or denies them access to their medication and assistive devices such as walking aids.

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One counsellor noted an increase in severe abuse cases, where the victim was referred to a hospital.


That’s why the community plays a crucial role when it comes to the reporting of elderly abuse, say experts.    

South East District mayor Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman said the Community Development Council (CDC) keeps a database of some of its vulnerable elderly, and works closely with agencies from the healthcare and social services sectors.

The Eastern Health Alliance and South East CDC also launched the Neighbours for Active Living programme in 2013 to train volunteers to care for vulnerable and elderly residents.

Eastern Health Alliance’s community care manager Cheryl Lau said staff are trained to look out for signs of elderly abuse.

“Because we build long-term relationships with the client, we would have built enough trust to know what the family situation is. Sometimes, we may suspect that there may be abuse but we still have to ascertain if it is real,” she said.

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Seniors learning about what they can do in situations of abuse, at a getai outreach session.


And for those who don’t want to be helped, a new law – the Vulnerable Adults Act - may be the last resort.

The proposed law will allow social workers and other professionals, such as lawyers or doctors, enter the house of a suspected abused victim to assess the case and remove the person to a safe place.

It can help cases like Mdm Ng, who has since turned her back to social workers, said Ms Lam. 

“Other than being able to enter a home where family members may not be willing to open their doors, they would also have access to things such as medical records and other agency’s information, so that they can do a holistic assessment,” she said.

Watch this episode of Talking Point here. If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence, you can contact:

ComCare: 1800-222 0000

PAVE: 6555 0390

TRANS Safe Centre: 6449 9088

Care Corner Project START: 6476 1481

Source: CNA/yv