Partnership with Caxton Legal Centre
Collaboration with people who have experienced elder abuse
When I tell people what I am photographing they look at me askance. “Elder abuse? What’s that?” The very few who don’t question the term whisper their own tremulous tale. From this I glean that unless someone you know, be it through family or work, has had his or her vulnerability taken advantage of, then you have no idea what the hell I’m talking about.
So I find a generic explanation, one I rattle off to everyone, quickly offloading it, without breath or pause: “Elder abuse is any act within a relationship of trust which results in harm to an older person. The most common forms of elder abuse include physical abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse and neglect.” It does the job but it’s not the whole story.
That’s what I find in the lounge rooms and kitchens I meet people in. Rooms that are, without exception, covered in the collections of long lives; photos, trinkets, albums, newspaper clippings, the bits-and-bobs that add up to the sum of their years. I sit, and I drink tea (endless cups of it) and we talk. Finally I find out what ‘elder abuse’ really means.
Most of the stories leave me gawping in shock, unable to correlate my environment with the words spilling from the person sat in front of me. And I’m not someone who hasn’t come across the horrors that people inflict on each other before. I’ve walked sad paths with very vulnerable people, but this…
It always comes back to my own grandparents though. When I trace the trajectory of ‘How On Earth Does Something Like This Happen?’ with each of their stories I am led back to Norma. She’s 87 and one of the greatest loves of my life. I’ve been besotted with her since she first stuck me on her no-nonsense hip as a babe in arms. She was my favourite person to bury myself in, seeking sanctuary, and thirty years later I still remember hiding in her skirts, my safe spot.
Now though she has dementia. And she’s frail. And when I take her for a walk along the beach I shield her with my body. I scuttle sideways, crab-like, arms around her, in case one of the dogs or children hurtling past joyfully knocks her. I open her door and hold her hand as she walks. If I could wrap her in cotton wool I would, making her giggle all the while (making her laugh is one of my biggest joys).
The men I speak to remind me of my darling Tom, my Puppa. He’s unsteady on his feet these days, and every time I say goodbye to him I weep hidden tears in my car after forcing an overly cheery goodbye wave. It’s the cruelty of loving people who are closer to death than is ever comfortable. Each moment feels like it should be cherished and held very carefully, for as long as it lasts.
So when I listen, and know that these horrific things happen to these people precisely because they are old, I’m angry. Each of them is on their own path of forgiveness but because their stories are fresh to my ears I feel confused, and outraged. I want them to be more pissed off, or to weep more, wail, rend or something, because it’s horrible.
It’s also because I love hanging out with them. I wander home after an interview feeling like my job is a pleasure, rather than a chore. That I’ve made a whole heap of new friends who load me up with biscuits, and plant clippings and as many other little gifts they can press on me. I adore them. Every single one of them. And it’s that personal connection to them, and the nostalgia of my own grandparents that makes it all seem so unforgivable.
But these folk are, in some sense, the lucky ones. They’re some of the ones who have had the resources, the education, the support or will to find help. And they find it in the Seniors Legal and Support Service (SLASS) at the Caxton Legal Centre. And while I try to focus on unearthing people’s experiences of abuse, there’s a common theme to all of my interviews.
All of the people I talk to clasp me, or wring their hands in reverence, and offer up their gratitude to the staff of SLASS. It comes bubbling out of them, grace from turmoil. They feel saved, loved, and important. And it’s the team of people who care enough to walk into their lives, and offer help, who have done that.
I think we have all felt the redemption of a helping hand, and understand its worth, but these people are among the most vulnerable members of our community, their encroaching physical frailty leaving them open for manipulation of the worst kind; it’s a repugnant curiosity that weakness seems to inspire the most violent rage.
It goes both ways too. I spend a little time with the SLASS team and see their faces light up when they recount their time with their clients. And of course it has to be rewarding because there is never enough hours in the day, or courage in your heart to entirely soften the blow of a job like theirs; seeing the worst side of human behaviour, the cruelest and most heartless.
The saddest part is that I feel like that for every person who finds that gift of help from SLASS there must be a half dozen more who are being let down by a community that doesn’t respect its aged. And so, almost more importantly than giving these people a voice to tell their stories, is the hope that their stories will make people remember that age and vulnerability does not diminish a person’s worth.
Caxton Legal Centre is an independent, non-profit community organisation providing free legal advice, social work services, information and referrals for the most disadvantaged members of society. Established in 1976, Caxton is Queensland’s longest running free legal advice service.
The Seniors Legal and Support Service, or SLASS, provides free legal and social work support for seniors experiencing elder abuse, mistreatment or financial exploitation. SLASS is part of Caxton Legal Centre Inc.