Community organisations must become the “eyes and ears” of elder abuse, the NSW Ageing and Disability Commissioner has told a gathering of community care workers.

Commissioner Robert Fiztgerald told a conference in Sydney that home support isn’t just about providing services, but about empowering people as they age.

“What you do is you empower them by bringing them into the community, ensuring they are connected with each other,” Commissioner Fitzgerald told a CHSP Futures Conference in Sydney on Tuesday.

“These programs in relation to home care and community support packages are more than service delivery programs. They go to the very heart of how we respect and deal with older people”.

That included ensuring they were safe from elder abuse.

A new era for the safety of older Australians

Commissioner Fitzgerald said Australia is entering a new age in the safety and wellbeing of Australians, driven by the emergence of the issue of elder abuse and the rise of a framework to deal with it.

This included organisations like his own, a growing number of elder abuse collaborations around the country and plans to establish a force of 60 specialist aged crime prevention officers within the NSW police force within four years.

He said elder abuse is crime, not a domestic issue.

NSW Ageing and Disability Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald addresses the CHSP Futures Conference on March 10, 2020.

“For older people elder abuse is now a real issue,” he said.

“Today in many senses we don’t want to believe that older children abuse their frail aged parents, but they do.”

Commissioner Fitzgerald said commonwealth estimates suggest that 5 per cent of Australians aged 65 and over, or some 185,000 older people, are abused each year.

Most abuse is financial and psychological and 80 per cent of complaints to the commission, which also oversees disability, relate to older Australians. The “vast majority” of reports involve family members.

However, providers have an important role to play in the elder abuse response, and those who don’t take responsibility or fail to speak out risk becoming just as complicit as the actual perpetrators.

Providers key in calling out abuse

Commissioner Fitzgerald says the job of community care organisations doesn’t end with service provision and they must think of themselves as integral to the safety and wellbeing of older Australians.

As reported by Community Care Review in June, Mr Fitzgerald, has been appointed to head the state’s first Ageing and Disability Commission with wide powers to investigate abuse, including authority to compel people provide evidence and hold investigations.

But he said all his powers are useless without the support of the sector.

“You will become the eyes and ears of the work that I do. You’re not simply somebody providing services and supports. You will become the eyes and the ears of the signs of abuse, neglect and exploitation that is occurring in the community.”

He said the royal commissions in to banking and child sexual abuse contained some important lessons for the aged care sector about what happened when people and organisations turned a blind eye.

“If you do that, are you complicit in the abuse that will occur?” he said. “If you don’t name it, if you don’t call it out, who will?

“In relation to elder abuse, we know this for certain: the majority of reports come from family members. But in the future it will be you – community workers, home care workers, health care workers.”

Commissioner Fitzgerald said the community sector has a role to play in shaping the future for older Australians.

“My job is to ensure that older Australians living in NSW and adults living with disability are as safe as they can be in their homes and in the community,” he said.

“To do that I need your support and your cooperation, or will you be part of the problem? Will you be as complicit as those that are actively creating the risk?”

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