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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Elder abuse is everybody’s business and we need to be vigilant for warning signs

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Elder abuse is a sobering topic, a phenomenon that violates the natural law of providing dignity and respect to those that have come before us — the elders who have built our country and nurtured us as parents and grandparents.  

With World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) coming up on June 15,  the team from Seniors Rights Victoria (SRV), a key program of Council on the Ageing (COTA) Victoria, is urging all Victorians to accept that ‘Elder Abuse is Everybody’s Business’ and amplify their awareness as to what constitutes elder abuse and its warning signs.

The term ‘elder abuse’ comprises a range of abusive behaviours perpetrated against persons aged 65 and over.

According to the 2021 National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study, published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), one in six (14.8 per cent) older Australians reported that they have experienced abuse in the 12 months prior to being surveyed.

The most common form of elder abuse, according to the study, was psychological abuse, affecting 12 per cent of older Australians, followed by neglect (3 per cent), financial abuse (2 per cent), physical abuse (2 per cent) and sexual abuse (1 per cent).

This study did not survey residents of aged care facilities, where evidence of abuse is also apparent, with an average of 50 sexual assaults occurring each week and abuse and neglect commonly reported to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.

Concerningly, only about one-third of elders citing abuse in the AIFS study sought third-party help to respond to the abuse.

Sadly, this comes as no surprise to Dr Rebecca Edwards, manager and principal lawyer of SRV.

“Older people, whatever abuse they’re experiencing, can have difficulties reporting it, and then taking action to prevent it because of all of the complexities of elder abuse,” she tells Aged Care News.

In 81 per cent of cases brought to the attention of the SRV Hotline last quarter, the perpetrator of the abuse was the elder’s own child, making recourse a psychologically challenging prospect.

“So there’s feelings of not wanting that adult child to get into trouble, or the fact that the adult child might have mental health issues, gambling problems, or drug and alcohol problems — they’re just worried,” Edwards says.

“The second play into that is feelings of shame or embarrassment, like they haven’t parented well or they’ve done something wrong themselves.”

Rebecca Edwards, manager and principal lawyer for Seniors Rights Victoria, says that everyone in an elder’s network should keep an eye out for signs of abuse, with psychological and financial abuse most common.

For this reason it is important for all person’s in an elder’s network to keep an eye out for the warning signs.

“While the mistreatment of an older person may be carried out by one family member, it is often other family members who are best placed to support their parent or grandparent against the abuse, provided they recognise what is happening,” Edwards says.

However, some elders may find themselves without a trusted family member to turn to, highlighting the need for third-party support services.

“I’ve seen families where there’s three or four children all abusing the older person, financially or in other ways, but certainly having a support person can most definitely lead to better outcomes.

“These are not necessarily better legal outcomes, but better long term outcomes, in terms of helping them find more appropriate accommodation or helping go to the bank and get their accounts sorted out or just generally having that emotional support.

“We all need support when you’re dealing with those sorts of traumatic experiences.”

What are the warning signs of elder abuse?

According to the Prevalence study, people with poor physical or psychological health and higher levels of social isolation are more likely to experience elder abuse.

Overall, 13.7 per cent of the study’s participants who had face-to-face contact with their family and friends a few times a week or more frequently reported any type of abuse, compared with 17.8 per cent who saw their friends and family less often than once a week.

Edwards says that much like with other forms of domestic violence, elder abuse often occurs behind closed doors, so one should look out for particular signs and changes in an elder’s behaviour as indications of potential abuse.

 “The warning signs of elder abuse may include an older person seeming fearful, anxious or isolated.

“There may be injuries, or an absence of personal care.

“Disappearance of possessions, unexplained financial transactions, and changes to a will, property title or other documents are also of concern.”

SRV also hopes that elders can empower themselves to ward against abuse via implementing some practical pieces of advice.

“Older people can reduce the risk of elder abuse by making sure their financial, medical, legal and other affairs are clearly stated and recorded in legal documents and/or discussed within the family.

“Older people must also be empowered to recognise the signs of elder abuse and encouraged to state when they are not comfortable with an arrangement.”

In the event of declining capacity, a child or other next-of-kin will often acquire an enduring power of attorney over an elder’s affairs.

Edwards notes that many instances of elder abuse will commence when someone takes control over an elder’s affairs, despite them still having the ability to express their wishes.

“In fact, lots of our clients have diminished capacity, but not no capacity,” Edwards says.

According to Edwards, elder abuse is a complex phenomenon and as such, policy approaches need to be nuanced and multi-faceted.  

“Each form of elder abuse involves different dynamics; therefore it is fundamental that policy and practice responses need to be tailored for different subtypes.

“A blanket approach is likely to be ineffective and that interventions need to be carefully designed for the specific subtype.”  

The ACT has recently taken a punitive approach, specifically criminalising various forms of elder abuse since April 2021.  

These laws make it a criminal offence for a carer to abuse or neglect a vulnerable person and for a person in authority — such as someone in charge of a residential care facility’s operations — to fail to protect a vulnerable person in their care, with a maximum punishment of five years imprisonment.

However, the approach has been criticised by the territory’s own legal circles, and is not endorsed by SRV, either.

“A big question in the sector at the moment is whether elder abuse should be criminalised or not … and our position is that it shouldn’t be criminalised because there’s actually sufficient laws in place already — they just have to be utilised appropriately,” Edwards says.

Some psychologically torturous situations still have limited prospects for legal recourse, a prime example being the withholding of contact with an elder’s grandchild.

“It’s a really difficult situation because, from a legal point of view, grandparents rights are pretty limited,” Edwards explains.

“Children do have rights to see their extended family, provided they’ve had continuing and ongoing relationships with them, but it’s pretty rare for grandparents to take action in the family court.

“Even if they were successful, they get pretty limited amounts of time, because obviously, for the child, their most important thing is to be seeing their parents.”

Thus, SRV have recently developed resources for grandparents in this situation, and are raising awareness at a Melbourne event on WEAA, June 15, called ‘Stir A Cuppa With Seniors’.

“Estrangement from grandchildren is often a complex situation, mixed with high levels of emotion and anxiety,” Edwards says.

“Although it’s not always possible, SRV aims to assist grandparents to maintain a connection with their grandchildren and have a sense of hope that a positive outcome may prevail.”

In recognition of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Seniors Rights Victoria will be holding an afternoon tea at the Melbourne Bowls Club on June 15 to spread awareness of elders’ rights.

Although the primary purpose of these initiatives is to stamp out abuse, the live event will also focus on the positive impacts that healthy intergenerational relationships can have on families, and society at large.

“We’re trying to celebrate the positives, too,” says Edwards.

“Although it’s World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, we’re also well aware that many families have fantastic intergenerational relationships.

“But if you do see any issues, it’s really important to call it out.”

More about Seniors Rights Victoria

Seniors Rights Victoria, a community legal centre, is the key state-wide service dedicated to stopping elder abuse.

Supported by the Victorian Government, SRV operates under the principal of empowering older people.

SRV provides information, support, advice, casework and education to help prevent and respond to elder abuse.

To seek advice or support contact SRV Helpline on 1300 368 821 or go to seniorsrights.org.au.

In SRV’s latest quarterly report on its Helpline calls, there were 985 Helpline contacts from January 1 – March 31, 2022), an increase of more than 100 contacts to the Helpline from the 2021 quarter (883 contacts).

The data also showed that there had been a steady increase in contacts to the Helpline since 2019.

Edwards clarifies that these figures indicate an increased confidence in elders seeking third-party assistance, not an increase in the prevalence of abuse cases.

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  1. The most prevalent elder abuse without any doubt is financial abuse and it’s happening in their own home and it’s being carried out by family members. The pension forming part of the household budget is more important than the welfare of their parents etc.
    Family are keeping the frail and elderly at home far too long in very dubious conditions and there is not a soul to report this abuse. The abusee isn’t able to voice and of course the abuser isn’t likely to either. I’m aware of one example of two estranged sisters, one with poa and taking mums pension to support the house, leaving her at home alone, forbidding visitors etc… they have tried every avenue and have gotten nowhere.
    Who is looking after those at home ? No one !

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