Growth in community care intensifies the need for training of all frontline workers in spotting abuse and knowing what support is available, conference hears 

A national program of training on identifying and responding to elder abuse should be rolled out for those working in health and aged care, financial services and law enforcement, a conference has heard.

Some 91 per cent of violence and 71 per cent of financial abuse against seniors was perpetrated by family members, and the growth in community aged care meant there was a greater propensity for this abuse to remain hidden.

During a panel session on elder abuse on Tuesday, the Leading Age Services Australia National Congress heard that all professionals who encountered or worked with seniors needed training in identifying the signs that abuse was occurring, and knowing where to refer seniors for help.

The Commissioner for Senior Victorians Gerard Mansour said that most risks for elder abuse occurred in the family setting, and he recounted cases in which the older person who was being financially abused by their son or daughter did not report it or take action for fear of losing the relationship with their child.

Community care workers were well placed to help seniors in such circumstances but the key issue was how we “normalise the provision of information,” he said. Research had clearly identified the typical signs that abuse was happening and it was crucial that frontline workers were educated about these indicators and knew about the existing state-based support services they could refer seniors to.

Mr Mansour said he believed that psychological abuse was the most damaging to the victim, as the abuser gradually forced the person to disconnect from the world around them.

He had heard firsthand from seniors who were reluctant to assign a power of attorney for fear it could be misused and result in their victimisation.

While frontline community care workers had a central role, several speakers agreed on the need for the various professionals who encounter seniors in the community to be better educated – ranging from GPs and allied health professionals to financial services and banks.

Several panellists noted the challenge for the financial services industry to put in place protections to prevent the potential for financial abuse of seniors by those holding power of attorney.

These comments align with recent research that found a lack of national uniformity around power of attorney meant banks might be inadvertently facilitating elder abuse.

In terms of standardising the provision of information nationally, Hetty Johnston, CEO of Bravehearts, suggested that the point at which people had their wills made was a logical opportunity to provide information about elder abuse and the support services available.

Danny Blay, a policy advisor and trainer, said the family violence sector had found that providing training to some health professionals, particularly GPs, had been a challenge.

However, Mr Blay said that once training had been provided, there was a subsequent increase in referrals to family violence agencies.

The conference also heard that older women often disclosed that they were suffering abuse to their local hairdressers, and the hairdressing industry should be targeted and resourced as a source of information provision on accessing support services.

The awareness of elder abuse among police, and their response to reports of suspected cases, varied across the states, the conference heard.

Professor Caroline Taylor, founder of Children of Phoenix, said that when providing training to police officers she found many often struggled to understand that women faced the risk of sexual assault across their life span, and they frequently questioned how an older woman could be abused by younger family members or carers.

“Getting across that vulnerability, that it exists across the life span, is really challenging,” she said.

Fellow panellist Dr Catherine Barrett, coordinator of the Sexual Health and Ageing Program at La Trobe University, said that the sector needed to highlight good practice in aged care around preventing and responding to the sexual assault of older women.

Dr Barrett said she had recently secured funding to document “shining examples of practical things” being done in the area in Victoria.

LASA CEO, Patrick Reid, said the whole community had a role to play in identifying and protecting seniors from elder abuse.

“The same systems that have failed those being abused, are failing survivors of family violence, continue to fail our elderly people. A lack of visibility of the problem and ineffective reporting policies and fear of repercussion enable abuse to continue,” he said.

“Aged care providers, home care staff, GPs, hairdressers, retail staff – anyone who has contact with someone who may be being abused behind closed doors, has a duty of care, a responsibility to reach out to help that person.”

Related coverage: Elder abuse: an under-recognised phenomenon in an ageing society

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