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Suffolk-based Hourglass charity struggling to fight ‘hidden epidemic’ of tragic abuse of older people

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Day in, day out, its staff and volunteers hear harrowing stories of appalling abuse and do their utmost to help.

Suffolk-based Hourglass is the only charity in the country 100 per cent dedicated to combatting the harm, abuse and exploitation of older people across the UK.

Yet it struggles to stay afloat in the face of ever-increasing need caused by a hidden epidemic of fraud, neglect and cruelty.

Michelle Comben takes a call at the Hourglass charity which helps victims of elder abuse. Picture: Richard Marsham
Michelle Comben takes a call at the Hourglass charity which helps victims of elder abuse. Picture: Richard Marsham

Making its voice heard and raising the cash to keep its services going is an uphill battle, according to CEO Richard Robinson who says the problem is slipping ‘under the radar’.

Richard is a seasoned fund-raiser who, as ex-chief executive of The Legacy List, spent years raising money to secure the future of London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park,

When he took on his current role he was shocked to find how hard it was to get the cash and public profile the charity – which recently extended its helpline to 24/7 cover – so desperately needed.

Richard Robinson, CEO of the Hourglass charity. Picture: Richard Marsham
Richard Robinson, CEO of the Hourglass charity. Picture: Richard Marsham

When they approach English MPs for support the vast majority do not even bother to reply. “Before we launched the 24/7 helpline we emailed 200 MPs. In England we only got three responses,” said Richard.

“We have more political supporters in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland than here. Trying to get cut-through in England is like pulling teeth. We have no one to ask questions in parliament for us.

“We are calling for a minister for older people to be appointed in England – there is already one in Scotland.

“Only a tiny fraction of victims are getting the help they desperately need. The stories we hear are so harrowing. Some of the calls are heartbreaking.

Hourglass charity which helps victims of elder abuse. Picture: Richard Marsham
Hourglass charity which helps victims of elder abuse. Picture: Richard Marsham

“There was one sex abuse case in 2020 I’m haunted by even now. At 4am I’ll be thinking about it and my stomach churns.

“People don’t like talking about abuse of older people. So many are suffering and don’t know where to turn for help.

“It is estimated 27 million people in the UK are affected by it, either as victims or those close to them.

Hourglass poster
Hourglass poster

“That is a staggering statistic which means the abuse of older people is the most prevalent form of abuse in the UK.

“Thankfully we are increasingly aware of other forms of abuse like child abuse and domestic violence, but the abuse of older people remains in the shadows even though it affects millions.

“We must bring it out into the open and support older people who are experiencing it to get the help they desperately need.”

Hourglass gets about 8,500 calls a year from the general public and the last year saw the number almost double.

“We are the only elder abuse charity in Europe that has a 24/7 line. When it started we had 100 out-of-hours calls in less than a week. So that would bring us up to 15,000 a year.

"The need is enormous. I think people assume that this is about abuse in care homes but that is the minority.”

The charity was involved in the BBC Panorama expose of horrifying abuse in a care home in 2016.

But most calls are from people being abused by their family or sometimes private carers... emotional and physical abuse, people being deprived of food and neglected, sexual abuse and rape.

“The most tragic are often around neglect and isolation,” said Richard.

“Financial abuse is common, money stolen by children or other family members, or carers. We get people whose savings were obliterated by their children within months. Houses are signed over, wills changed.”

Richard Robinson, CEO of the Hourglass charity which helps victims of elder abuse. Picture: Richard Marsham
Richard Robinson, CEO of the Hourglass charity which helps victims of elder abuse. Picture: Richard Marsham

In 2020 at least £13 million was reported through the charity’s helpline as stolen, defrauded, or coerced from older victims.

Seventeen houses were sold or taken without consent and an additional 35 were given away under pressure. Hourglass believes this is the tip of the iceberg as many cases go unreported.

Its data shows a worrying lack of knowledge about what is abuse. One in six people believe taking a precious item from an old person does not count.

And, even more horrifying, one in eight do not think punching or kicking an older person is abuse.

There are times, though, when Hourglass’s intervention can mend relationships.

“We do get people who reconcile. There are certain things that are red flags which we report, but often we just mediate,” said Richard.

The charity also gets calls about scams but usually works with Trading Standards on those.

It was founded as Action on Elder Abuse in 1993 by Sally Greengross, a former director general of Age Concern. Baroness Greengross, who was appointed to the House of Lords in 2000, is still its patron.

In 2020 the name was changed to Hourglass to reflect the passing of time, and the fact that situations can be reversed.

“We do have some astonishing stories of recovery,” said Richard, who grew up in Hadleigh and now lives in Edwardstone.

They also run an annual Safer Ageing Week – launched in 2020 to help people age safely and have independent lives.

The charity moved a few years ago from Streatham to a small office in Long Melford, and is now based at the Stour Valley Business Centre, in Sudbury.

Richard joined in 2018. But he knew of its work through calling about the treatment of his father, who while in respite care was left on the floor of a care home for hours because they had no hoist to pick him up.

The 24/7 helpline has been funded for its first year of out-of-hours cover in England by the Home Office, for which Richard says they are incredibly grateful. Hourglass pays for the rest of the UK from its own funds.

Michelle Comben takes a call. Picture: Richard Marsham
Michelle Comben takes a call. Picture: Richard Marsham

“We need to bring in £1.2 million a year just to stand still. That’s the bare minimum,” he said. “Last year we only managed to raise £600,000. If we don’t get £1.2 million this year the helpline will probably have to go back to 9 to 5."

Hourglass case workers take on around 1,500 cases a year. As well as its Suffolk HQ it has virtual bases in other parts of the UK with people working from home.

It is also working to expand its specialist Independent Domestic Violence Advocate scheme into more local authorities, to help older victims remain safe in their homes.

More case workers are desperately needed but there is no money to employ them.

“The team we have - 28 staff and 40 volunteers - are brilliant,” said Richard. “They are trained to the nth degree to deal with the calls we get.”

Yet the abuse of older people remains at the back of the queue for funds and attention.

He finds it hard to accept that Hourglass gets less funding than an organisation concerned with the abuse of farmyard animals.

“There are rail lines less than a mile long that have more funding than us,” he adds.

Spreading the word is equally difficult. Hourglass discovered last year that elder abuse had only 35 mentions in Parliament - in the same period fox hunting was mentioned 915 times.

“We put posters in places like GP surgeries and libraries but are almost entirely reliant on word of mouth.

Hourglass poster
Hourglass poster

“Yet it is something that touches everyone. We are not a niche charity.

“We want the public to understand that every one of us can be at risk – people need us to support them during their most vulnerable times in life.

“It’s a message I would scream from the rooftops if I could.

“Norfolk and Suffolk have one of the highest proportions of older people in the UK. It was one of the reasons we moved here. We have 20 live cases within a half hour drive of where we are sitting now.

“If this was a ‘hate crime’ there would be far more statutory regulation.

“But bringing a case in this country is fraught with difficulty because older people are not seen as reliable witnesses.”

The number of people aged 65 and over in the UK is growing fast. “The time to take this seriously is now because it is only going to get worse,” he said.

To contact the Hourglass helpline phone free on 0808 808 8141, text free on 07860 052906, or email helpline@wearehourglass.org. Talk live on Instant Messenger at www.wearehourglass.org.

Information is available at knowledgebank.wearehourglass.org

To make a donation, go to wearehourglass.org. To donate £10 text SAFER to 70460.