The public is always horrified by stories of children abandoning or neglecting their aged parents. But beyond disapproving comments, there is little anyone can do to unfilial children.

But by 2020, children who neglect, abandon or abuse their elderly parents could be penalised by the law, once Parliament passes a legistlation to safeguard the rights of the elderly.

Just like the Child Act that protects children from mistreatment and the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) which deters violence against spouses, advocates have been lobbying for a specific law for senior citizens which will not just protect them from abuse but also address population ageing, age discrimination and guarantee them their rights and access to services in their golden years.

Their efforts have paid off as last month, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail announced the government’s commitment to legislating an act to protect the rights and welfare of the elderly.

Though she didn’t indicate when the law would come into effect or elaborate on what the law will encompass, sources say that the Women, Family and Community Development minister is bent on pushing this through within the next two years.

This is welcome news for seniors and also those who have been pushing for a specific law for seniors.

The needs and concerns of senior citizens are different from the rest of the public. Photo: 123rf.com

“There are many reasons we need this. The needs and concerns of senior citizens are different from the rest of the public. When they were young and working, they were able to care for themselves and others under their care.

“However, adults over 60, tend to become vulnerable due to financial, health or other social factors.

“Having a specific statute for them will recognise the changes they face and can facilitate and assist in addressing their issues, challenges and concerns,” explains Universiti Malaya (UM)’s law lecturer Dr Zulzahar Tahir.

Dr Zulazhar and his colleagues, law lecturers Dr Jai Zabdi Mohd Yusoff, Sridevi Thambipillay and Dr Siti Zaharah Jamaluddin from Multimedia University are part of UM’s Prevent Elder Abuse and Neglect Initiative (Peace), a multidisciplinary study involving researchers from UM’s law and medical faculties.

Their ongoing study revealed alarming findings about elder abuse and neglect in Malaysia: one in 10 Malaysians over the age of 60 in urban areas experience abuse.

In rural communities, one in 20 experience forms of abuse, such as neglect, financial and psychological abuse as well as physical abuse.

Although our current legal framework includes statutes that are applicable to the elderly – such as the Domestic Violence Act 1994, the Penal Code, Care Centre Act 1993, Employment Act 1955 (Part –Time Employees) Regulations 2010, Minimum Retirement Age Act 2012, Pensions Act 1980 and the Employees Provident Fund Act 1991 – these offer piecemeal protection and are insufficient in addressing the needs of the elderly today, the researchers claim.

Abandonment and neglect of the elderly, for example, are not illegal under current law despite rising incidences of abuse, neglect, exploitation reported in the media.

On the right track

Seniors too have welcomed the move and are hoping that the law will give senior citizens more visibility in society.

Fu advocates for her peers’ rights to employment and support services.

“A law for seniors is definitely necessary,” says gerontologist Lily Fu, 70. “Senior citizens are often neglected and conveniently ignored. So far, nobody seems to know what to do with this group and whether it is worth investing resources to provide solutions.

“Society has long regarded people in this age group as unproductive and a drain on limited resources and as such, they are best quietly ignored or maybe occasionally given assistance.

“Presently, our senior citizens come under the Women, Family and Community Development ministry but many matters concerning seniors, such as employment, skills training, age-friendly environments, elder housing and aged care are not addressed by the ministry,” says Fu who is the founder of Seniors Aloud, an online community of senior citizens that serves as a platform for them to advocate for themselves.

Addressing elder abuse

While protection of the elderly should be the priority of the new law, the Peace researchers hope that it will focus on empowering seniors through structures and policies that can help them access their rights.

“The overriding aim of the statute should be to allow and enable seniors to live independently for as long as possible, so there must be provisions that can help them achieve this,” says Dr Siti Zaharah.

Empowerment also means outlining reporting structures for seniors who experience abuse but do not want to pursue criminal action against their family members.

“Elder abuse does happen but it is very much a taboo subject. It is unreported and not spoken of because parents don’t want to get their children in trouble. No parent wants to report their child to the police.

“However, reporting doesn’t have to always involve the police. Abused elders should have the option of talking to someone other than the police such as representatives religious organisations or welfare officers or community leader while retaining the power to decide what he wants to do next.

“Having a third party involved may help the situation and prevent things from escalating. This might also encourage elders to speak up and get help,” says Dr Zulazhar.

The primary responsibility of caring for the elderly must remain with families and not the state. The new law can assist families who need help in caring for their aged loved ones.

“It’s natural to associate the law with punishment. But that’s not what this law should be about.

“The spirit of the statute should be safeguarding the sanctity of the family unit. It isn’t about punishing children who can’t care for their parents.

“There are many other remedies and interventions, such as counseling or assistance programmes, that the law can introduce that can protect and provide for seniors and at the same time, preserve the family unit,” Dr Jai Zabdi explains adding that punishment should be the last resort.

(From left) Assoc Prof Dr Jai Zabdi, Dr Zulzahar, Dr Siti Zaharah and Sridevi Thambipillay hope the new law should focus on empowering seniors and helping them live independently for as long as they can. Photo: Filepic

Despite the prevalence of elder abuse, the researchers believe that most Malaysians still want to care for their elderly.

“In many cases, it isn’t that the family don’t want to care for their elderly family members.

“Traditional family values have been affected by factors such as migration of children to cities, urbanisation and the change in the family structures.

“Also, most family caregivers are in the sandwich generation. They face an immense strain of having to make a living and care for their children and parents. They may not even realise that their actions amount to neglect.

“A law which covers not only the rights of the elderly but the roles of stakeholders – the state, service providers (such as long term residential and care homes, daycare centres, housing developments, transportation, commercial outlets, etc), family, non-governmental organisations and the community, will empower and protect the elderly.

“A law can support the needs of seniors and their caregivers. Incentives and services must be there to ease their burden,” adds Dr Siti Zaharah.