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Elder Abuse: a Q&A with Seniors Rights Victoria

by Naomi Sherborne, Health Promotion Officer, Jewish Care and Jenny Blakey, Manager, Seniors Rights Victoria

Elder abuse as a concept is a relatively burgeoning area in the public health sphere - why do you think that is?

It is only in recent years that family violence is being discussed more openly and its devastating impact acknowledged. Women who have experienced violence and those who advocate for them have done huge amounts of work to shift the public conversation, and one result is an increase in the number of news stories on the issue.

Unfortunately, the ageism of a youth-oriented society and media has shown less interest in older people and the issues that affect them, while also promoting a view that holds older people as vulnerable and in need of protection. This means that the concept of elder abuse is less familiar — the abuse and undermining that some older people experience is seen as less important because older people are not held in high esteem by the community. The Aged Care Royal Commission is testimony to this.

Why do you think it so important that there is a focus on and appreciation of this particular type of family violence?

Most commonly, elder abuse is perpetrated by an adult son or daughter against their parent. As a parent, the older person can feel responsible or ashamed of the situation, and may not want their child punished. Coupled with the fact that it can be difficult for the voice of older people to be heard, it means elder abuse often gets swept under the carpet. It’s all the more important to focus on this type of family violence as it is under-recognised and can have devastating impacts on people at a time in their lives where their options may be more limited.

How does intersectionality play into the complexity of situations of elder abuse?

A person’s characteristics and experiences will always influence their situation. For older people, difficulties experienced over a lifetime can become compounded — discrimination based on race, gender or sexual identity can be even more difficult to address if someone is on a limited income, beyond working age, or has an age-related illness or disability.

*Note from Jewish Care: we would of course add that a person’s nationality, cultural identity and religious or faith traditions are important points of intersection here also.

What effect has COVID-19 had on elder vulnerability to family violence?

It is expected that the effect of COVID-19 on the incidence of elder abuse will play out over a longer period of time, particularly as adult children return home due to unemployment or housing pressures. In times of stress many people may look to their parents to support (financial and otherwise) and this increases the risk of abuse.

Older people are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of COVID-19, so have been encouraged to self-isolate to a more comprehensive degree than most younger people. While many are active online, those who are not digitally connected or are socially isolated with few resources may have had to rely on family for support. This dependency can increase a person’s vulnerability to elder abuse as a form of family violence, particularly if family members are also experiencing pressures.

As family, friends, acquaintances or colleagues - how can we best support the older people in our community in challenging situations such as the recent lockdown?

The best thing to do is to stay in touch so people know they have someone to reach out to. If you have any concerns about situations of the older people in your life the most important thing to do is ask them directly if there’s anything they would like assistance with – not to impose what you think is best. Making sure people have access to the information they need to make good decisions is a good start, while also understanding that a person’s age is just one aspect of their identity and not always a defining one.

What can we do to help prevent elder abuse occurring in our population?

Respect older people and their rights. By according and demonstrating respect we can encourage the same from others.
If you have concerns about an older person and suspect there may be elder abuse, talk to the older person directly. Don’t minimise or excuse abusive behaviour, or feel scared to say something if you suspect things aren’t right. Listen to what they have to say and support them in making decisions.

If you or someone you know would like support:
Seniors Rights Victoria: 1300 368 821
COTA Victoria: 1300 13 50 90
Elder Abuse Helpline: 1300 651 192
Jewish Care COVID Helpline: 8517 5555