Help for adults who cannot help themselves

Help for adults who cannot help themselves

A NEW law to be introduced this year to protect vulnerable adults will cover not only those abused by family members, but also those who cannot care for themselves, said Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing yesterday.

"The new legislation being drawn up will go beyond cases of abuse and neglect by third parties to self-neglect cases in which people can't care for themselves or inflict harm on themselves," he said at a family violence conference.

Self-neglect cases could involve those who do not feed or clothe themselves, or seek medical help adequately. Such behaviour can be deliberate or unintentional, such as when a person loses his mental capacity.

Under the proposed Vulnerable Adults Act, social workers and other professionals will get the powers to enter the house of a suspected victim to assess the person and remove him to safety if necessary.

It will protect people aged 18 and above who are incapable of protecting themselves from harm, due to mental or physical incapacity or disability. The proposed law will complement other key pieces of legislation used for family violence cases, such as the Children and Young Persons Act and the Mental Capacity Act.

While there are not many such cases now, Mr Chan said it is crucial to develop the legal framework to tackle them as the number is expected to rise significantly as the population ages.

By 2030, it is estimated that Singapore will have 900,000 elderly people.

Singapore sees a few hundred cases of elder abuse every year, likely the tip of the iceberg, considering that more than 400,000 people are aged 65 and above.

Ms Grace Lin, centre director at Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities, said: "Without such a law, social workers now can't do anything other than monitor these cases, especially if a person suspected of self-neglect refuses to let us in to help."

Dr Alex Su, a senior consultant at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), said vulnerable adults can be helped earlier with the new law.

For example, a case referred to IMH involved three single sisters in their 50s and 60s who lived in a one-room rental flat.

The oldest sister, who had swollen, infected legs from a condition called elephantitis, was struggling to support her intellectually disabled sisters.

They hardly had visits from anyoneand became a concern as they were hoarding so many things that they had to sleep in the corridor.

After social workers spent months persuading them to get help, they were eventually treated for mental health issues.

Though social workers cleaned up their flat, they had to move into a nursing home as they could not care for themselves or the flat.

Dr Su said: "Such cases can be detected earlier and be given help earlier if there are legal powers and proper protocol on how the different agencies can work together to identify and handle such scenarios."

Mr Chan said the challenge was to decide when to intervene - stepping in too early might be seen as depriving the adult of his civil rights, while doing so too late might result in harm coming to him.

This article was first published on January 16, 2015.
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