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The signs of elder abuse

While some forms of elder abuse can be very obvious, in most cases, the abuse takes place behind close doors and can be hard to spot, especially when a close family member or friend is the perpetrator.

Key points:

  • Financial abuse is usually most noticeable when older Australians can't pay for normal essentials that they would usually be able to afford

  • Unexplained injuries or wounds can be a sign that someone is experiencing physical or sexual abuse

  • Every Australian should be able to access shelter, food, water and health care, if they are being prevented from receiving this it is considered neglect

Older woman with a bruise on her face
​If you witness elder abuse, you need to report it to police or to an aged care facility. [Source: iStock]

The community, family, friends and medical professionals play an important role in spotting older Australians who are experiencing elder abuse and it's important to know what to look out for.

Geoff Rowe, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Aged and Disability Advocacy (ADA) Australia, says there are different signs for noticing elder abuse depending on what form the abuse is appearing in.

"There are some similarities with domestic violence because it can be mental and physical, people will have bruises and marks," explains Mr Rowe.

"[The community needs to] keep an eye out on changes in patterns of behaviour or listening to what [older people] are saying and not discounting them.

"Domestic and family violence response we have seen over the last 20 years is around broader community awareness. The community is appalled when they hear stories of domestic violence being perpetrated. We are hoping it is the same for the abuse of older people. It often goes unchecked, unnoticed."

The information below can assist with identifying possible elder abuse, of any form, of an older loved one or elderly person in your local community. 

Financial abuse

When it comes to financial abuse, usually high-value items going missing or issues with paying regular bills are a good indicator of identifying this type of abuse.

It doesn't necessarily mean a victim having money withdrawn from their account by someone they know, it could include items being stolen and sold for cash. If a relative has valuable jewellery, artwork or furniture missing from their home, this could also be an indicator that something is wrong.

In most cases, a house is the most expensive possession a person can own. So if an elderly person suddenly decides to sell or family members move in, this could be a result of outside pressure.

Many older people have set routines throughout the week, so if this behaviour suddenly changes it may be because they are no longer able to afford their normal activities.

If an older person is avoiding medical appointments or buying essential items, this can be another sign that they are struggling to afford necessary food and health care, highlighting something is wrong.

This is also the case if an older person says they have gifted an expensive gift to someone and still can't afford to pay for essential items. If the older person gets defensive or won't discuss the gift, it can be because they were pressured by the abuser.

Lastly, any unexpected changes to banking practices or financial documents, like Wills or Enduring Power of Attorney (EPOA), can be a sign of pressure from an abuser to give them more power or control over an older person's finances and assets.

Financial abuse is the most common form of elder abuse in Australia.

Physical or sexual abuse

Physical abuse can appear through unexplained injuries or bruising, which may come with inconsistent excuses for how they received the injuries.

Additionally, if the older person has soreness, restricted movement or infections, this can be a sign of physical abuse.

Even an older person's appearance can provide insight into potential physical abuse, like poor health or dramatic weight changes.

In most cases, if an older person is being abused, they may have behaviour changes like detachment, sadness, fear and anxiety.

If you see an older person not being treated with dignity and respect by a loved one, friend or carer, this could indicate worse issues behind closed doors.

An older person who is experiencing sexual abuse will show similar signs to those being physically abused.

They will likely exhibit fear and anxiety when close to their abuser or if they come into physical contact with an abuser.

Any torn or bloody unclothing or bedding can be an indicator of sexual abuse.

Additionally, if an older person has internal injuries or gets diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease or incontinence, this can be another give away for sexual abuse.

If a carer or loved one won't allow you to visit an older person by themself, this may be another cause for concern.

Neglect or social abuse

An older person who is deprived of basic essentials or not able to see loved ones and friends, could be experiencing neglect or social abuse.

It is considered neglect if an older person is denied appropriate shelter, food, medical support or general personal care.

If an older person is hungry, thirsty or has lost weight, they may not have access to human necessities.

Wearing wrong clothing for the weather conditions or if they appear dirty or unkempt, could indicate they may not be receiving proper personal hygiene care they may require.

A person's health is another important factor. For example, if any health problems have gotten worse, it can indicate mismanagement of medication or lacking services.

Hypothermia, dehydration and pressure sores are other signs that a person is not in good living conditions.

Socially, if an older person is sad or grieving over the loss of contact with others, this could indicate they are not being restricted in their social movements.

Their behaviour may become withdrawn or listless, and they may start to show signs of depression or loneliness. This can include a huge loss of self-esteem.

If you come into contact with a family member that won't allow you to visit your old loved one, that could mean they are restricting the person to see people important to them.

Emotional or psychological abuse

Abuse that comes in the form of pressuring, bullying, name-calling or threatening to harm a person, someone they love or their pet, is considered emotional or psychological abuse.

Emotional abuse can result in a lot of behavioural reactions like fear, depression and sadness, loneliness, and feelings of helplessness. In some instances, this abuse could cause more serious mental health issues to develop.

Not only that, if an older person is belittled by an abuser for a period of time, it can lead to low self-esteem.

Similar to social abuse, an abuser may threaten someone to stop seeing their friends or prevent them from receiving support or care services when they need it.

Another huge problem of emotional abuse is that it can cause some behaviours that are similar to dementia, like rocking, sucking or mumbling.

What to do if you notice elder abuse?

If you witness elder abuse, make sure to report it to police or to an aged care facility. Keep reporting incidents if it happens multiple times, so the police or facility will have a file of the offending.

It's important to document the abuse for later by taking notes of behaviours or photos of injuries.

When talking to the older person about the abuse, they need to know that what they are experiencing is not normal. If they live in an aged care facility, the provider can assist by limiting a visitor's access to the resident or take action if it is from a staff member.

It is recommended not to approach the abuser yourself because it may lead to further abuse of the elder person or put you in danger. However, if you have the older person's permission to do so, then you can take further action to remove them from the perpetrators care and find more appropriate services.

Making the older person's doctor or other medical professionals aware of the abuse, if physical or mental, can also help them identify if the issue is persisting.

Help the older person connect with support and advocacy groups so they have professionals to lean on when they face issues.

Also, make the effort to check in on your older loved one often to ask the question, "Are you okay?"

All types of abuse from subtle or severe, often go unreported. A person experiencing abuse may feel shame and reluctance to speak out so it is important for the people around them to be aware of any signs and address bad behaviour.

Mr Rowe says, "It's important to call out bad behaviour as bad behaviour is something that shouldn't be tolerated and shouldn't be accepted. 

"The current generation of older people [is considered] as the grateful generation, they have grown up during the war, their parents went through the depression and didn't tend to complain and were grateful for what they have. That unwillingness to complain is what people often won't speak out. 

"It's important to understand what is happening to them is not acceptable, not appropriate and can be supported to address that."

He adds that because elder abuse is not a crime in Australia, it means perpetrators will not be prosecuted for certain types of abuse.

Physical and sexual abuse are considered criminal acts in themselves and should always be reported to the police.

Additionally, elder abuse is not mandatory to report, unlike child abuse where doctors or teachers have to report it.

Over 50 percent of those who report their experience of psychological, physical or social abuse are living with their perpetrator. It can be difficult to raise concerns when it is coming from someone they know and love.

Sometimes older people are not able to stand up for themselves when they are experiencing elder abuse. It is up to the community to respond and make sure vulnerable older people are safe.

If you are still unsure what to do or don't know if it is elder abuse, the best course of action is to contact the Older Person's Advocacy Network (OPAN) on 1800 700 600. They can provide advice and let you know whether it is abuse or not, and direct you from there.

Or contact your State or Territory elder abuse helplines:
ACT - Older Persons Abuse Prevention Referral Line - (02) 6205 3535
NSW - NSW Elder Abuse Helpline - 1800 628 221
NT - Elder Abuse Information Line - 1800 037 072
QLD - Elder Abuse Prevention Unit - 1300 651 192
SA - Aged Rights Advocacy Service- 08 8232 5377        
        Elder Abuse Prevention Phone Line - 1800 372 310
TAS - Tasmanian Elder Abuse Helpline - 1800 441 169
VIC - Seniors Rights Victoria - 1300 368 821
WA - Elder Abuse Helpline - 1300 724 679

If you require help or information around elder abuse, tell a family member or friend, or call your State or Territory elder abuse helpline.

If it is serious physical or sexual abuse, call Triple 000.

Related content:

What is elder abuse?
Advocacy
The ongoing issues with ageism

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