Elder abuse cases ‘tip of the iceberg’

Elder abuse takes many forms – emotional, psychological, sexual, social, and financial.

Recorded cases of elder abuse in Australia underestimate the true picture, Australian Ageing Agenda has been told.

The Older Persons Advocacy Network received almost 1,300 calls regarding elder abuse in the six months to March 2024, according to preliminary data. “We know that’s just the tip of the iceberg because, of the almost one-in-six older people who reported experiencing abuse in the National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study, only one-third had sought help,” said OPAN chief executive officer Graig Gear. 

OPAN’s data comes ahead of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Held annually on 15 June – and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly – WEAAD provides an opportunity for communities across the globe to stand together and call out the abuse, mistreatment and neglect of older people.

Craig Gear

“World Elder Abuse Awareness Day shines a light on this shocking phenomenon, which all too often occurs behind closed doors and without any witnesses,” Mr Gear said. “It asks to stop and reflect on the reasons why older people are at increased risk of harm, particularly from family members.”

OPAN’s preliminary data is slightly down on the previous year, however, calls to a national government hotline – 1800 ELDERhelp – show a sharp increase in cases of elder abuse. From July 2023 until the end of May 2024, 9,085 calls were made to the phone line – a jump of 36 per cent from the same period the previous year.

“This is a significant increase and a timely wakeup call for all of us this World Elder Abuse Awareness Day that we need to be vigilant,” Age Discrimination Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald said.

Patricia Sparrow

Patricia Sparrow – chief executive of Council of the Ageing Australia – told AAA elder abuse is unfortunately far too common right around the world, and it’s no different here in Australia. “Systemic issues like ageism mean that all too often elder abuse is overlooked or dismissed, which is why World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is so important. It helps bring the issue to the forefront of people’s minds and provides practical tools to address the scourge of abuse facing too many older Australians.”

She added: “If it prompts just one person to recognise the signs of elder abuse and do something about it, it’s worthwhile.”

Elder abuse is not just physical. It can take many forms – emotional, psychological, sexual, social and financial. It’s the latter form of abuse that National Seniors Australia is bringing to attention this year.

Chris Grice

“While we often talk about older Australians being increasingly targeted by online scammers, we also need to talk about the financial loss suffered, not at the hands of strangers, but by loved ones in positions of trust,” said NSA CEO Chris Grice. “Financial abuse often involves a trusted person using a person’s money or credit card without their permission, coercing or forcing an older person to sign over assets, to change a will or Power of Attorney or withholding care for financial gain.”

Older people fall victim to such abuse because they never expect a loved one to take advantage of them, Mr Grice said. “They’re unable to stop it, or they feel too embarrassed to go to the police – which they shouldn’t.”

Mr Fitzgerald points to the growing phenomenon of inheritance impatience, “where adult children frustrated by the longer waits for wealth transfer from parents who are living longer, resort to elder abuse for financial gain.”

Robert Fitzgerald

“Current economic pressures, including increased housing stress amid the cost-of-living crisis, have the potential to exacerbate the risk of abuse,” he added.

Mr Fitzgerald is calling on “urgent reform” of the Enduring Power of Attorney laws, which authorises someone to make legal and financial decisions for an individual when they’re not able to themselves.

Mr Gear told AAA he would like to see the same. “An issue that advocates have consistently raised with me over the past two years is the inappropriate use of guardianship and attorney powers. Sometimes it’s families. Sometimes it’s providers. And, sometimes, it’s the failure of the guardianship system. Collectively, we need to do better.”

People don’t always seek help and identifying abuse can be hard

Chris Grice

In 2016, NSA made a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission recommending consistent and strengthened Enduring Power of Attorney laws to help protect older people from financial abuse.

So far, progress has been slow. Mr Grice said greater work needs to be done to prevent abuse and bolster the services that respond to it. “Financial loss in later life is particularly devastating because older people often don’t have the means to make up that loss. Unfortunately, people don’t always seek help and identifying abuse can be hard.”

While elder abuse affects older people of all genders and backgrounds, the abuse disproportionately affects women. Culturally and linguistically diverse communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and LGBTQI+ communities are additionally vulnerable to elder abuse, as are older people living in regional and rural communities.

As well as internationally and nationally, WEAAD is also being marked at a local level with Senior Rights Victoria and COTA Victoria urging Victorians to rally around the right of older people to live free from fear.

Avita Kamil

“The most recent study of elder abuse prevalence in Australia found that 14.8 per cent of those 65 years and over had experienced at least one recognised form of elder abuse over the previous 12 months,” said Senior Rights Victoria manager and principal lawyer Avital Kamil. “This suggests that 160,000 older Victorians are reporting that they have experienced elder abuse each year.”

SRV and COTA Victoria have embarked on a campaign that engages the community “beyond WEAAD and across Victoria,” said Ms Kamil. “We believe this public campaign will raise awareness about the signs and prevalence of elder abuse, where to get help, and reinforce the right of older people to feel safe at home.”

The National Elder Abuse hotline can be reached on 1800 353 374.

OPAN’s Aged Care Advocacy Line – 1800 700 600 – can also support people experiencing abuse in aged care.

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Tags: age discrimination commissioner, Avita Kamil, Chris Grice, cota australia, COTA Victoria, craig gear, national seniors australia, opan, patricia sparrow, Robert Fitzgerald, senior rights victoria, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day,

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