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The elder abuse plan doesn’t go far enough: opinion

An emphasis on vague goals like building momentum and safeguards in the national plan to tackle elder abuse would be better replaced by targeted funding of proven local services, writes Myfan Jordan.

The recently released National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians is a welcome announcement. The plan includes the rollout of a national elder abuse helpline, targeted research, and $18 million for pilot services across four years.

Myfan Jordan

Its priorities are:

  1. build our understanding of abuse of older people
  2. build community awareness to create momentum for change
  3. strengthen our service responses
  4. help people better plan for their future
  5. strengthen safeguards for vulnerable older people.

In pursuing these priorities, the Plan allocates funding for research, data collection, better information and planning support for older people and services and legal  pilot projects around the country  (read more here).

But to what extent does the plan respond effectively at the community level, supporting older people at risk or those experiencing abuse? To do this, our national approach needs to address what we know to be the particular characteristics of elder abuse.

Elder abuse almost always takes place within family settings. It often starts slowly and builds over time and can involve a normalisation process that works to isolate victims from broader family and friends and disengage them from support services.

There is a correlation between elder abuse and family violence, which was formally recognised in Victoria when elder abuse was considered under the Royal Commission into Family Violence, yet this is not explicitly referenced in the federal government’s plan.

Elder abuse by definition involves an abuse of trust, so it is important we reflect on the broader contexts in which it occurs. Perpetrators are almost always adult sons or daughters or daughters-in-law, and although male victims are not unusual, older women are significantly more vulnerable.

The domestic nature of elder abuse means responses that fully support victims need to be holistic. While increased data and specialist knowledge are important, the plan doesn’t give strong enough consideration to the frontline services needed to protect older people. Access to safe and secure housing for example can be a critical factor where older people are living with perpetrators. It’s important that funding is targeted in ways that ensure older people are kept safe.

Despite the reluctance of older people to prosecute particularly family perpetrators of elder abuse, our national plan could have better explored responses within the criminal justice system. Currently, our civil tribunals’ system, the usual avenue for pursuing recompense, is slow to move and doesn’t offer actual protections.

While we already have criminal offence categories responding to each of the forms that elder abuse can take – theft, assault, fraud and so on – elder abuse in and of itself is not a crime. But some other countries are looking at making elder abuse a specific offence in the way that child abuse is, and there is little doubt that enhanced criminal sanctions would send a clearer message to the community that elder abuse is unacceptable.

It would help position abuse as the crime it is, rather than as a so-called family matter. A specific criminal offence of elder abuse would also help capture both the incidence and the nature of abuse more accurately.

The plan also places emphasis on older people protecting themselves by way of financial and legal planning. Again, these are important tools in any arsenal against financial elder abuse, but to put the onus on individual older people to take legal steps and to expect that legal tools can alone provide sufficient safeguards ignores the complex and nuanced nature of elder abuse. It also disregards the broader context that sees cases of elder abuse growing.

There’s no doubt Australia needs a coordinated, national response to elder abuse and the plan will support this. Funding for mediation and trials of specialist services will prove valuable, although their long-term success will depend on ongoing.

But while financial and legal planning may help protect some older people, no national register for powers of attorney, which sector advocates have been calling for years, is a key gap. And the emphasis of the plan on vague goals such as ‘building momentum’, ‘understanding’ and ‘safeguards’ would be better replaced by targeted funding of local elder abuse services who are already doing great work.

The aged care royal commission underway and the launch of the national plan to respond to elder abuse suggest it is the right time for us to reflect on the broader cultural contexts in which abuse of older people occurs.

As a benchmark of where Australian society situates our older and most vulnerable citizens, there’s a lot more work to do.

Myfan Jordan is Director of Social Innovation at Per Capita’s Centre for Applied Policy in Positive Ageing.

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