A US elder abuse expert says Australia’s legal system is “silent” on elder abuse, and it should consider criminalising it and introducing mandatory reporting.
San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood, who will be a keynote speaker at the 2019 National Elder Abuse Conference in Brisbane next month, says current Australian laws are ill-equipped to address elder abuse.
In Australia, financial elder abuse can only be prosecuted under fraud charges, while physical abuse comes under general assault legislation.
Mr Greenwood says the lack of specific criminal laws is keeping elder abuse in the shadows.
“In Australia and the UK, not only are the victims silent, but so is the legal system, as there is no specific criminal stature relating to these acts,” he said.
“Similar to laws surrounding suspected child abuse, Australia and the UK need to consider mandatory reporting for professionals such as caregivers, medical personnel, law enforcement and paramedics, who are likely to notice the signs of elder abuse.”
During his visit he says he hopes to talk with Australian prosecutors and law enforcement authorities about how to increase protection for older Australians.
Lack of national data
His comments came as a new government report found a need for more research on the prevalence of elder abuse in Australia and its risk factors, as well as the need for research and evaluation of specific prevention and intervention strategies.
The paper from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Elder Abuse: Key issues and emerging evidence, says there is currently no national data on the prevalence of elder abuse in Australia.
However, based on international studies between 2 per cent and 14 per cent of older people in high or middle income countries experience elder abuse every year, it notes.
Internationally, a 2017 analysis of prevalence studies estimated that 15.7 per cent of older adults in community settings had experienced some form of abuse in the past 12 months. Psychological abuse was the most common form of elder abuse, affecting more than one in ten victims.
Based on the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health, around eight per cent of older women reported some form of abuse when surveyed in 2008 and 2011. The study also revealed that 20 per cent of women aged 70–75 years and 85–90 years experienced neglect.
“As the proportion of people aged 65 years and over increases over time, the overall population of older people vulnerable to abuse is expected to increase with it,” the report says.
The report says caregiver stress is a key risk factor for perpetrators and perpetrators are also more likely to be financially or emotionally dependent on the victim and have a sense of “entitlement'”.
“Policy and practice responses to elder abuse are still developing and are hampered by the lack of local evidence to inform and support particular strategies,” the paper says.
However it notes some “promising” policy initiatives, including the National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians, that aim to establish a more comprehensive and coordinated response to elder abuse.
The report calls the development of national and state based policies, as well as screening, social support strategies and targeted case management and advocacy.
Home care providers ca help prevent abuse
Catherine Joyce, General Manager of Quality, Outcomes and research at Benetas, says aged care providers who are in regular contact with people in their homes can play a pivotal role in stopping elder abuse.
“We know that elder abuse is, unfortunately, often carried out by someone that an older person knows and trusts, such as a member of their own family,” she says.
“Aged care providers who deliver services to clients in their own homes are well-placed to identify where an older person may be at risk, and to link them with information and resources. Providers can also ensure that their staff know how to recognise the potential signs of elder abuse and the options for responding.”
Providers can also assist in primary prevention, Dr Joyce says.
“This can include educating older people about their rights, providing information about advocacy, promoting supported decision-making, and providing support and information about appointing substitute decision-makers and advance care planning,” she says.
She urged aged care workers to support the EveryAGE Counts campaign.
Australia marked World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15.