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Recognise the signs of elder abuse and how to prevent it

Elder abuse is a widespread issue in Australia with statistics estimating that around one in six older Australians have experienced some form of elder abuse.

Last updated: June 15th 2022
Woman looking out a window
There are a number of steps you can take to prevent or minimise your risk of elder abuse. [Source: iStock]

Key points:

  • Elder abuse often occurs because of the belief that older people are not important in society
  • If you feel like a situation with family or friends isn't alright, then it most likely isn't
  • Set boundaries with loved ones about what you will and won't accept in behaviour

It can be difficult to recognise and navigate as it is usually carried out by family or friends that you know and trust. Elder abuse falls under the umbrella of family violence.

When someone you love is not treating you well, it can be hard to know what to do and you may be feeling guilty about getting help or contacting authorities.

Dr Rebecca Edwards, Principal Lawyer and Manager of Seniors Rights Victoria, says, "I think for older people, the dynamic of a family member being the perpetrator of the abuse means that older people don't necessarily want to report that abuse, because they worry about getting that person into trouble.

"They are worried about feelings of shame or guilt, or worried that it was somehow their fault - if it was an adult child.

"So people often say, 'I never thought this would happen, I trusted them'. It usually stems from love for their children rather than any sort of general obliviousness to the situation. Of course, people who have diminished capacity [are] more at risk of elder abuse."

If you are experiencing elder abuse or at risk of elder abuse, there are methods to help reduce or prevent this form of family violence.



How does elder abuse occur?

Dr Edwards says that elder abuse can occur for a number of reasons, and the victims Seniors Rights Victoria assist have described family members and friends experiencing mental health issues, addiction for drugs, alcohol or gambling, and inheritance impatience.

In some cases, elder abuse can be by accident, for example a carer who has become completely overwhelmed with their responsibilities.

However, Dr Edwards explains that elder abuse is rooted in ageism, which is why it is so important to call it out when you see it.

"Fundamentally, we believe elder abuse occurs because of ageism and this expectation that older people are not important in society and perhaps that parents will continue to look after their children no matter how old they are," says Dr Edwards.

"[You need to] call out ageing and sexism because they are basically forms of discrimination, obviously around age and gender.

"And think about unconscious biases you hold and try to avoid doing things that might emphasise those biases. Because even those little changes can help lead to overall a better society."

Signs a relationship has become unhealthy

It can be hard to tell if a relationship with a loved one has become unhealthy or abusive, as it is easier to think a loved one is having a bad day rather than something more unethical.

However, Dr Edwards says Seniors Rights Victoria generally tells people that "if you think it isn't alright, it probably isn't alright".

If you have a relationship that you feel is negatively impacting you, look out for:

  • Yelling or aggressive behaviour when interacting or asking for something
  • Demeaning comments or behaviour
  • Regular patterns of behaviour, like borrowing or demanding money and not returning it
  • Gaslighting you or saying you are being forgetful, such as "you have dementia" or "you should be in aged care"
  • Making you feel like you are "not on top" of things

"Often [older] people can be perfectly on top of things, the other person is using their age as a weapon," explains Dr Edwards.

Dr Edwards also suggests if a loved one starts leaning on ageing stereotypes when in situations or arguments it can be a sign of elder abuse.

Methods for minimising elder abuse

Putting in safeguards to protect yourself against elder abuse can be really important. Even if you aren't worried or already experiencing elder abuse.

Elder abuse can happen to anyone, so making sure your finances and personal affairs are in order can make a huge difference in protecting yourself from unexpected behavioural changes from family or friends.

Dr Edwards says the most important thing you can do with family and friends is set boundaries, which can be really difficult if this behaviour has been entrenched for years.

These boundaries can be important for changes in your living circumstances, health, financial situation, or future decisions about your care, and let your family and friends know what you will and won't accept in regards to their behaviour or action.

For example, say you move in with family and put money into their property to help with the arrangement. Do you know if you will get that money back? Putting in place legal documents and having these discussions early on can help take the emotion out of future problems.

Other methods for minimising elder abuse include:

  • Having difficult conversations about finances and your personal wishes, including future aged care wishes
  • Put in place important documents, like Wills and Enduring Power of Attorney, and appoint people you trust to oversee these arrangements
  • Keep control over your finances and personal affairs for as long as possible
  • Put in place direct debit for bills rather than handing over your financial information to someone else to make bill payments for you
  • Speak to advocacy helplines, it doesn't have to mean your case is taken further but advocates can provide you with helpful tips and tricks around elder abuse, as well as provide you with referrals to other services
  • Organise mediations or facilitated conversations between yourself and family
  • Keep in regular touch and engaged with other people you know and trust
  • Don't get isolated from your support networks, including your social clubs, hobby groups, or doctors and other medical professionals
  • Be open about your situation with those you trust, you may find that other people have been in similar situations and can provide you with advice and support

If you feel like you need advice or assistance about elder abuse, you can contact the Older Person's Advocacy Network (OPAN) support line on 1800 700 600 or the National ELDERHelp line on 1800 353 374. There are also State and Territory based advocacy services available, like Seniors Rights Victoria.

If you are concerned for your immediate health and safety, call emergency services on Triple 000.

How have you prevented elder abuse to yourself or to an older loved one? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

What is elder abuse?
The signs of elder abuse
Creating a strong estate plan

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