Identifying Elder Abuse

For Support: (03) 8517 5999 Click to Donate or call: 1800 539 474

15 June 2020
By Naomi Sherborne – Health Promotion Officer

In recognition of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) on June 15, Jewish Care wishes to encourage and prioritise awareness of elder abuse within the community.

To understand elder abuse and the context in which it evolves we must look at not only its visible prevalence but its covert and transformative ability in times of crisis such as the recent COVID-19 lockdowns and our gradual emergence from them.

The health and wellbeing of older adults is an area that has been gaining more emphasis as the median age of our population increases. Unfortunately, our societal perception and image of ageing is not necessarily always favourable, enabling or enlightened, and ageist perceptions such as these can lead to elder abuse not only being simplified but also overwhelmingly overlooked within the modern world.

The term ‘elder abuse’ brings to mind many broad hypothetical scenarios: financial exploitation, neglect or intimidation. While all of these scenarios do depict elder abuse, what they do not represent is the complex and compounding nature of elder abuse and its potential to damage an older person’s fundamental right to feel safe.

Elder abuse is a type of family violence and may be physical, social, financial, psychological or sexual. It also includes neglect. It is not always deliberate - sometimes family, friends and carers may not be aware that their actions constitute elder abuse.

Data around the prevalence of elder abuse, both in Australia and around the world, is limited. The Royal Commission into Family Violence estimated that elder abuse affects around 5-6% of older Australians, however there is likely to be significant underreporting of incidents - the Australian Institute of Family Studies suggest that the rate may be as high as 14%.

The onset of COVID-19 presented a significant challenge for the wellbeing and safety of elders. While it has been an uncertain and anxious time for many individuals irrespective of age, for older people the intersection of pre-existing health conditions, social isolation, the loss of community ‘touchpoints’ following closures of spaces such as libraries and senior programs, and disparity in access to or literacy in digital resources amplifies overall risk, creating a perfect storm within which elder abuse has the potential to occur.

Elder abuse does not discriminate. People of all ages, ethnicities, socio-economic status and genders can be affected.

The veiled nature of elder abuse both within society and within our homes means that we as a community need to learn to discern the contexts where it can thrive, the cultural beliefs and attitudes that can enable it, and the red flags that help to recognise it.

Although the contextual factors below are not the cause of abuse, they can be helpful in understanding who may be at greater risk of elder abuse.

Physical and social isolation

  • Older people with small social networks, limited social participation or geographical isolation can struggle to find a support network. There may be no one to witness abuse or for the older person to disclose to. This risk is heightened when older people are encouraged to socially isolate as much as possible, as has been the case during COVID-19.

Carer stress

  • May occur if a nominated carer has insufficient support to enable them to provide proper care for an older person. Greater dependence during the pandemic on family members who are themselves experiencing higher levels of stress and uncertainty can further compound vulnerability.

Environmental risk factors

  • Geography, access to services and living situation. This includes but is not limited to living with a son, daughter, an in-law, extended family, a lodger/boarder or a carer.

Economic pressures

  • Financial pressures or difficulties associated with home ownership (debt, upkeep, renting, and social housing). As many people lose work through the pandemic, economic pressures will place greater stress on households and increase the risk of elder abuse.

Mental health issues

  • Mental health issues are a risk factor for both older people and those who perpetrate abuse. Social isolation is widely acknowledged to have a negative impact upon people’s mental health as our options for social interaction have diminished.

Unfortunately, the factors that help to protect against elder abuse have not been studied as extensively or rigorously as the risk factors. However, identifying and understanding protective factors is vitally important in helping to prevent elder abuse, particularly with respect to shifting community attitudes that devalue older people.

Relationship Level

  • Having numerous, strong relationships with people of varying social status.

Community Level

  • A culture that values, empowers and celebrations the contributions of older people.
  • Coordination of resources and services among community agencies and organisations that serve the elderly population and their caregivers.
  • Higher levels of community cohesion and a strong sense of community belonging or identity.
  • Higher levels of community functionality and greater collective efficacy.

Protective factors within institutional settings can include the following:

  • Effective monitoring systems.
  • Solid institutional policies and procedures regarding patient care.
  • Regular training on elder abuse and neglect for employees.
  • Education and clear guidance on enduring power of attorney and how it is to be used.
  • Regular visits by family members, volunteers, and social workers.

Where to go if you or someone you know is experiencing elder abuse

  • Senior Rights Victoria – 1300 368 821
  • Jewish Care - 8517 5555
  • 1800 RESPECT (24/7) – 1800 737 732
  • Safe Steps (24/7) – 1800 015 188
  • In an emergency, call 000