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OPAN panel discussion confronts disturbing epidemic of sexual assault in aged care

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Sexual assault in aged care is a horrifying phenomenon that has been pushed under the rug for years.

But with 530 incidences of sexual abuse reported within residential aged care facilities in the last quarter of 2021, it’s high time we paid attention and those who need to, acted.

Thus, the Older Person’s Advocacy Network (OPAN) has launched new educational materials as part of their #ReadytoListen campaign, which are aimed at raising awareness and stamping out the sexual abuse of elders across this country.

The latest development in the campaign, which researchers have been working on since mid-2021, was launched today with a panel discussion hosted by prominent journalist and feminist activist, Jane Caro.

Manager of OWN NSW Yumi Lee (top left), director of Celebrate Ageing, Dr Catherine Barrett and OPAN CEO, Craig Gear have led the launch of the #ReadytoListen campaign, which aims to strengthen the prevention of sexual assault in aged care and better support elders who have experienced it.

The centrepiece of the online launch was the MAP (Myths, Facts and Practical Strategies) Report, a policy framework outlining 10 ways in which residential aged care service providers can improve their responses to – and prevent – sexual assault:

  1. Understanding sexual assault definitions and prevalence
  2. Determining sexual consent
  3. Assessing the indicators of sexual assault
  4. Identifying the impacts of sexual assault
  5. Complying with reporting requirements
  6. Providing immediate safety and support
  7. Practicing open disclosure
  8. Providing trauma-informed aged care services
  9. Recognising and reducing resident vulnerability
  10. Protection, prevention and service improvement.

A suite of additional resources targeted at residents and their families will be released in the coming weeks.

OPAN CEO Craig Gear says that this latest campaign is a vital step in acknowledging that sexual abuse of elders occurs, and that much work needs to be done to stamp out this disturbing phenomenon.

This crime has been ignored or placed in the too hard basket for too long… We need to listen to and learn from older women how to create pathways so they can safely disclose sexual assault.

OPAN CEO, Craig Gear

“Sexual assault devastates the lives of older people and is an absolute violation of their rights,” Gear says.

“This crime has been ignored or placed in the too hard basket for too long… We need to listen to and learn from older women how to create pathways so they can safely disclose sexual assault.” 

Written by the director of Celebrating Ageing, Dr Catherine Barrett, and manager of Older Women’s Network (OWN) NSW, Yumi Lee, the report uncovers a number of disturbing facts about sexual assault in aged care.

The ageist, sexist, ableist myth that sexual assault in residential aged care causes no harm to most residents is a major barrier to preventing sexual assault and supporting victims/survivors

Dr Catherine Barrett and Yumi Lee

Prominently, it included research from the federal health department that claims 58 per cent of sexual assaults in aged care were deemed to have ‘no negative impacts on the resident’.

“We were shocked by the research,” Gear says.

In contrast, Barrett and Lee note within the MAPs Report that the international literature suggests otherwise, that older persons experiencing sexual assault — including those living with dementia — actually experience:

  • high rates of mortality, physical injury and delirium, as well as protracted PTSD
  • physical injuries, including long term health conditions, exacerbation of existing injuries or conditions
  • higher rates of genital trauma, aches and pains, cuts and bruises, and sexually transmitted diseases, compared to younger women
  • fear of perpetrator reoffending resulting in distress, insomnia and general failure to thrive
  • delays in processing and impaired communication which potentially compounds the trauma of sexual assault

for anybody to say that a person living with dementia has no ill effects [from a sexual assault]… it’s the most fundamental misconception that anybody can have.

Member of OPAN’s National Older Persons Reference Group, Theresa Flavin

“The ageist, sexist, ableist myth that sexual assault in residential aged care causes no harm to most residents is a major barrier to preventing sexual assault and supporting victims/survivors,” Barrett and Lee write.

Thus, Barrett says this educational campaign is the first important step in rewriting the narrative around how sexual assault impacts the older generation.

“I think part of creating change is giving service providers the information, the education, the resources… [but] this is quite a complex process of change and will take us years.”

Theresa Flavin is a member of OPAN’s National Older Persons Reference Group and lives with younger-onset dementia, having being diagnosed nine years ago at the age of 45.

She explains that the notion that sexual abuse is ‘harmless’ in the event a victim is cognitively impaired is both inaccurate, as well as a violation of an elder’s human rights.

“That shows a really deep misunderstanding of what it’s like to live with dementia … this idea that you just forget.

“What I notice as a person with dementia is that I’ve changed from a thinking person with feelings to a feeling person with thoughts.

“I’m not remembering things that happen, specific dates… but I’m thinking and remembering in feelings.

“So, for anybody to say that a person living with dementia has no ill effects [from a sexual assault]… it’s the most fundamental misconception that anybody can have.

“I think it’s a sad day when it’s a woman with dementia here asking for the same rights as everyone else in terms of freedom from sexual violence.”

OPAN National Older Persons Reference Group member Theresa Flavin says that the notion that sexual abuse is ‘harmless’ in the event a victim is cognitively impaired is inaccurate and a violation of an elder’s human rights.

Lee concurs, saying that it’s astounding that it has taken such intense efforts to elevate the conversation around sexual abuse of elders.

“If there were 50 sexual assaults taking place in schools each week, would there still be the same level of inaction?” she poses.

She adds that alleviating the workforce crisis is a necessary step in ensuring residents are not left vulnerable and that support is available from staff if an incident does occur.

“There must be ratios in aged care. We can’t have the current level of staffing… let’s call it for what it is: it’s inhumane.”

With changes to consent laws across the country requiring affirmative consent, Flavin says that education must be brought to residential aged care to ensure residents’ behaviour shifts with the times, also.

There must be ratios in aged care. We can’t have the current level of staffing… let’s call it for what it is: it’s inhumane.

Yumi Lee

“It’s about educating both parties that affirmative consent is necessary in 2022 … educating older men with different expectations, different cultural norms… [society has] moved on, but that information hasn’t filtered through, and ignorance is not an excuse.”

Dr Bryan Keon-Cohen AM QC, a retired barrister and current president of ALARM, a not-for-profit legal advocacy group, congratulates OPAN on the remarkable initiative, but emphasises this is just the beginning.

“Anything that reduces the suffering of residents of aged care homes must be applauded. But it’s not enough,” he says.

“Victims need to speak up so that appropriate changes are made to protect present and future residents of aged care homes.”

In his retirement, esteemed barrister Dr Brian Keon-Cohen QC has founded ALARM, a not-for-profit legal advocacy group that he hopes will aid elders who are experiencing all forms of abuse — including sexual assault.

Keon-Cohen recognises the difficulty for victims coming forward, many of whom do not have the means to pursue legal action.

He emphasises the need for more legal associations to come forward and offer pro-bono assistance for elders in need, in the interest of ensuring true justice is achieved for some of societies most vulnerable citizens.

…someone who believes they have been abused or neglected can understandably be scared to speak up because they are living at the mercy of those neglecting or mistreating them. That is simply not acceptable in 2022.

Dr Brian Keon-Cohen QC

“Nobody should be left behind because they couldn’t afford a lawyer,” Keon-Cohen says.

“I created ALARM because it was clear that residents either aren’t aware of their rights or are too scared to do anything about their mistreatment and neglect.

“For example, someone who believes they have been abused or neglected can understandably be scared to speak up because they are living at the mercy of those neglecting or mistreating them.

“That is simply not acceptable in 2022.”

To find out more about the #ReadyToListen project, follow this link.

To find out more about the assistance available via ALARM, follow this link.

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