Elder Abuse and How to Protect Your Loved One

Elder Abuse and How to protect your loved on

Article by 

Debra Nicholl

The abuse of older people is a complex issue, with silence being its biggest ally. Knowing which way to turn for help starts by defining elder abuse, recognising its signs, and knowing where to seek support.

Often older people won’t speak up or speak out about it because their loved ones are often perpetrators.

As a result, they may not recognise what they are experiencing as abuse, or they will say, ‘Yes, I am suffering, but I’m not going to say anything because I don’t want to get them in “trouble”’.

Our work at Elder Rights Advocacy is around empowering the older person with information about the support that is out there so that they can make an informed choice about what to do.

Like other forms of family violence, many incidents of elder abuse occur behind closed doors, so loved ones and carers need to watch out for signs, listen and offer help.

Elder Rights Advocacy is a founding member of the National Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN), delivering the National Aged Care Advocacy Program (NACAP).

Our services are available to older people and their families/representatives who are accessing, or eligible to access, Australian Government-funded aged care services, including elder abuse.

Elder abuse includes a single or repeated act or failure to act

What is Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse includes a single or repeated act or failure to act, including threats, that result in harm or distress to an older person. This occurs when there is a relationship or an expectation of trust and a power imbalance between the party responsible and the older person.

Elder Abuse is Family Violence and is Unacceptable

• Anyone can experience elder abuse. But there are some characteristics that mean some people are at higher risk of abuse. These include being of lower socio-economic status, single, separated or divorced, living in rented housing, or owning a house with a debt against it.

• The age group most at risk of abuse are those in the 65–69 bracket, although the likelihood of neglect rises for those aged 80 and above.

• People with poor physical or psychological health and higher levels of social isolation are also at higher risk of abuse.

• People who experience elder abuse are more than three times more likely to have psychological well-being scores indicative of probable serious mental illness than those who don’t experience it.

• Having poor health or a disability or a medical condition lasting at least six months and causing difficulty in everyday life doubles the risk of experiencing elder abuse.

• Those who experience elder abuse have a much lower sense of social support than those who don’t experience elder abuse. 

The age group most at risk of abuse are those in the 65–69 bracket

As part of the National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians (National Plan, Council of Attorneys General, 2019), the Attorney General’s Department commissioned the National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study (NEAPS) to investigate elder abuse.

This is Australia’s first national survey and the most comprehensive study of elder abuse. This research shows that 15% of the population aged 65 and over who live in the community (rather than in residential care settings) have experienced elder abuse in the 12 months before the interview.

Psychological abuse is the most common subtype (12%), followed by neglect (3%), financial abuse (2%), physical abuse (2%) and sexual abuse (1%). Some people experience more than one subtype of abuse (4%). However, the most common combination of abuse is psychological abuse and neglect. 

Who Commits Elder Abuse and Neglect?

• Adult children were the main perpetrator group for psychological abuse (18%). The next largest perpetrator group was acquaintances (12%), followed by sons and daughters-in-law (10%), friends (10%) and intimate partners (8%).

• For physical abuse, children are still the biggest perpetrator group (17%), followed by spouses (12%), neighbours (12%) and friends (10%).

• Perpetrator profiles differ significantly for sexual abuse, with friends (42%) followed by acquaintances (13%) and spouses (9%) most likely to commit this type of abuse.

• Children and intimate partners are significant perpetrators of neglect (24–25% for each). Professional carers (14%) and service providers (13%) are bigger perpetrator groups for neglect than other abuse subtypes.

Ageism is one of the drivers of elder abuse and occurs in families and the wider community.

• Entrenched ageist attitudes further hinder older persons from claiming their rights and undermine their autonomy to make their own choices and decisions, hence the importance of educating older people about their rights.

Types of Elder Abuse

There are six types of elder abuse: physical, sexual, psychological, social, financial and neglect.

Financial exploitation of older people is the most common reported abuse

Physical involves pushing, shoving and rough handling. And according to The Report on Residential Aged Care Abuse and Neglect, one in every 20 residents in residential care reported having been physically abused.

Common signs are bruising to the body and significant and unexplained weight loss. Signs of sexual abuse may include bruising, bite or burn marks to genitals, thighs, breasts, rectum or mouth, as well as torn stained and bloodied clothing.

Financial exploitation of older people is the most common reported abuse to support organisations.

It ranges from the theft of small amounts of money, which, whilst low in value, may significantly impact those living on low incomes, to older people being coerced into gifting large amounts of money or even selling their homes.

Examples may include threats or coercion to gain Power of Attorney, pressuring for early inheritance and living with someone without helping to pay for expenses.

Signs may include ‘missing’ money or possessions, forcing someone to sign a will and changes to banking habits.

Psychological or emotional abuse appears to be one of the most common types of elder abuse and often occurs concurrently as an enabler and sustainer of financial abuse. Some signs may include fear, confusion and loneliness, feelings of helplessness, low mood, and depression.

Social abuse is forced isolation that prevents or restricts the older person’s contact with friends, family or the community.

It may include preventing a person from answering the door/ accessing friends and family/ receiving mail and phone calls, derogatory put-downs, and taking over their home without consent.

According to Aged Care Royal Commission in December 2020, the most prevalent type of elder abuse was deemed to be neglect (experienced by 30.8% of people).

This may include the mis-administration of medications, not bathing or wearing soiled clothing, and not being fed adequately.

Ending elder abuse and safeguarding the well being of seniors

Why Don’t Older People Say They Are Being Abused?

They are often fearful of more abuse, as well as feeling ashamed and humiliated.

There may also be the threat of losing relationships with family, especially grandchildren and the additional threat of being moved from home into residential care.

The most prevalent type of elder abuse was deemed to be neglect (experienced by 30.8% of people)

How to Protect Yourself?

It is important to stay socially connected, know your rights, control your finances, and access available support services. Elder Rights Advocacy is to support the resident and or family with information about older person’s rights.

Connect them to information or services that can support them and encourage them to report it. We have a warm referral relationship with Senior Rights Victoria as they have a legal service. Elder Rights Advocacy supports older people and their families or representatives with information about older person’s rights.

We connect people to services that can support them and encourage them to report elder abuse. For instance, we have a close partnership with Senior Rights Victoria, a legal service provider, to ensure prompt and appropriate referral if legal aid is needed.

It is essential to respect older people, call out ageism, and recognise the signs of potential elder abuse. This means noticing the changes in behaviour or appearance and encouraging people to understand their rights in seeking social networks and connections.

• Elder Rights Advocacy 1800 700 600

• Free, confidential elder abuse helpline – 1800 353 374

• Emergency-Police – 000 

Older people can reduce the risk of elder abuse by ensuring 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 uncomfortable with an arrangement.

National 1800 ELDERHelp Telephone: 1800 353 374 (national free call phone number that redirects callers to an existing phone line service in their state) ACG

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