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What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse has become an important topic in Australia, however, the prevalence is still unknown and difficult to gauge due to the secret nature of this abuse.

Key points:

  • There are six key areas of elder abuse that range from physical to mental acts of abuse

  • Elder abuse is underreported, which makes it difficult to record on how prevalent it is in Australia

  • It is difficult to spot elder abuse because in many cases the perpetrator of elder abuse is a family member, friend, or carer

Older woman looking worried
Elder abuse can come in many different forms, which sometimes makes it difficult to identify. [Source: iStock]

The World Health Organisation describes elder abuse as 'a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person.'

Studies show that in Australia, only one in five cases of elder abuse is reported, leaving a large majority of elders unable or unwilling to speak out.

However, the availability of the internet and help now at our fingertips, older Australians have been able to speak out more when they are being abused.

Sometimes the abuser may not be aware they are abusing their family member, or the victim may not understand they are being taken advantage of.

Additionally, it can be harder for an older person to admit to the abuse since the perpetrator is family and they don’t want to get them in trouble.

Elder abuse comes in many different forms, including physical abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse, neglect and sexual abuse, however, neglect and financial abuse are the most common forms.

There are a number of different types of elder abuse and it can be hard to recognise if you are experiencing abuse or if you know someone who may be experiencing elder abuse.

There are case studies below, which provide examples of the different types of elder abuse that older Australians experience.

These real-life examples of abuse are shared to make it easier for people to identify instances of elder abuse among their older loved ones.

In many cases, different types of elder abuse can be occurring at the same time if they are happening because of a certain situation.

*Disclaimer, the names in the case studies have been changed to protect the individual's privacy. All of the below case studies are real-life experiences of older Australians.

**Content warning: These stories may be distressing to some readers as it covers real-life examples of abuse.

​Physical abuse

This involves any deliberate action that results in physical harm to a person, that can be used to injury or intimidate an older person.

Unexplained bruising can be a sign of abuse, or agitation from the victim if a certain person is in their presence.

Physical abuse includes all forms of assault plus the use of physical or chemical restraints, this also means harm created through over or under medicating an elder.

Case study

Belinda* is an older client in rural New South Wales (NSW). While talking to an aged care advocate, she disclosed ongoing physical and psychological abuse by her husband. 

Belinda reported a history of domestic violence that had escalated recently due her husband’s dementia. 

The advocate escalated an assessment for aged care services for Belinda and her husband and referred her to the in-house social worker. 

Belinda identified that she has no access to her pension and that she does not feel safe at home. 

She disclosed that she has few informal supports to assist her. The social worker provided risk assessment and safety planning and linked Belinda into local domestic violence and police services via a referral. 

The social worker also supported Belinda while she accessed legal advice from a Seniors Rights Service solicitor. 

Belinda is still at home and reports feeling more empowered to make decisions after receiving advocacy and legal advice and with a safety plan in place. 

She has connected with local community and aged care services and her husband is currently in aged care respite.

Case study supplied by Advocare

Psychological/ emotional abuse

Abuse of this kind tends to manipulate a person through emotional factors, such as threatening to cause violence, isolation, deprivation, humiliation or powerlessness.

This can include limited access to services, threatening to take things away from an older person, like loved ones, or convincing them they have dementia when they don’t.

Having your right to make your own decisions taken from you or being treated like a child can also be considered emotional or psychological abuse.

Case study

An aged care advocate was helping Sylvia*, an older woman from a small regional town, who was experiencing psychological abuse, as well as financial abuse, from her daughter and son-in-law.

The advocate referred Sylvia to the in-house social worker, who assessed Sylvia’s situation, including her initial risks and safety needs. 

The social worker worked with the advocacy team to refer the client to aged care and community supports. Sylvia was also linked to legal advice via the organisation's legal service, and received counselling for emotional support.

The final outcome for the client is still unknown but she reports she is more able to take legal steps and feels empowered to assert her rights.

Case study supplied by Advocare

Social abuse

Sometimes an elder abuse perpetrator might want to alienate an individual by restricting their contact with friends, family and the community.

This might involve someone preventing the elder from receiving mail or making phone calls, not allowing them to attend events or leave the home.

Social abuse is usually a way to enact other forms of elder abuse.

Case study

George*'s daughter, Penny*, raised concerns with an advocacy group after her brother, moved in with George and stopped allowing people to visit.

George's son has schizophrenia and is not taking medication for the condition. The son is also receiving the carer's payment even though he is not looking after George.

Penny believes her father is scared of her brother and can't stand up for himself.

George has major health complications but does not have a cognitive impairment. He has been allocated Government funded in home supports, however, George's son won't allow Penny or any service provider into the home.

Penny is worried that her brother is socially isolating their father, as George's friends do not visit him anymore and her father never leaves the house.

Additionally, Penny isn't able to speak to George, because her brother answers the phone and hangs up on her.

Penny is afraid of her brother because he has a bad temper and can be violent at times. She is very concerned about her father.

Case study supplied by Senior Rights Victoria.

Financial abuse

One of the most common forms of elder abuse in Australia, this involves illegal, mismanagement or improper use of an elderly person’s funds and possessions.

This could involve a family member stealing money, taking control of all their finances without permission, gaining Power of Attorney, demanding an early inheritance, or having the will changed to receive all their possessions after they pass.

It is a serious form of elder abuse and elders can be left financially crippled.

Case study

Trevor*, a Vietnam Veteran with medical issues and family conflict, was admitted to a residential aged care facility against his will after a period in residential respite. 

He had to seek assistance from an advocacy organisation to deal with his son, who was his appointed Enduring Power of Attorney (EPOA) and his Enduring Power of Guardianship (EPG).

Trevor believes his son is not acting in his best interests financially, and was being verbally abusive towards him.

After several attempts to have his son relinquish the guardianship papers, Trevor sought the assistance from an aged care advocate's help to prepare for a review by the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT) to revoke his son's control over his affairs.

It was a big ordeal, but Trevor was able to overrule the previous decisions and he is back in control of his financial and personal affairs.

Case study supplied by Advocare

Case study - Intentional misuse of EPOA powers 

Fifty year old Andrew* moves in with his 90 year old father Peter*, after taking him to a lawyer to have himself appointed as Enduring Power of Attorney. 

Andrew is in considerable financial difficulty and wants to ensure he will receive an inheritance. He begins a deliberate campaign to convince his father that he is losing his 'marbles', and therefore his capacity to manage his own affairs.

Andrew insists on taking Peter to medical appointments and manages to convince his father’s GP that Peter is exhibiting signs of dementia, which leads to Peter being put on medication that produces a sedative-like effect. 

Andrew then arranges a Neuropsychological Assessment and drives his father to the appointment after ensuring he has taken the ‘dementia medication’ earlier that day. 

Unsurprisingly, Peter is deemed to lack decision-making capacity. Following this assessment report, Andrew makes a successful application to VCAT to become Guardian and Administrator for his father.

Case study provided by Senior Rights Victoria

Sexual abuse

Abuse of a sexual nature involves sexual contact, language or behaviour that is unwanted, with no consent or imposed upon through threats or force.

An elder can be targeted this way due to their vulnerability to stop the acts or speak up about being sexually abused.

Case study

Margarita* was sexually assaulted in 2016 while she was living in a privately-owned unit complex.

Her manager was on leave and a relief manager came in to take over during that time. The relief manager came into Margarita's room one afternoon and sexually assaulted her.

She reported the assault to the normal manager, who responded that the sexual assault wouldn't have happened because the relief manager was a family friend of theirs and they had known him for years.

The manager added that she must have had a urinary tract infection (UTI) that addled her brain. However, a test a week before the assault showed she didn't have a UTI, nor did she have a UTI test after the assault.

Even after Margarita told her doctor about the sexual assault and undertook a cognitive test, which she scored 28/30, so he could report the assault, the doctor ended up not reporting the incident to the police.

Margarita kept strong and continued pursuing her aged care facility about the sexual assault. She was able to get her facility to report the sexual assault to police.

Two other women in the facility reported being sexually assaulted by the relief manager, and eventually the perpetrator was reported for sexually assaulting another older woman in another State. 

Margarita didn't feel safe in her facility after that, however, management refused to provide her a door lock and other safety measures to make her feel comfortable in her home.

Eventually, Margarita moved to another residential aged care facility and the staff provided care to help her feel comfortable in her new home and assisted in improving her physical health.

The perpetrator pleaded guilty to the charges and received a lesser sentence of six months, suspended immediately on each of two charges.

Case study supplied by the Opal (Older People And SexuaLity) Institute

Neglect

A very common feeling among older Australians is that feeling of being alone or having no one to rely on.

While a family not visiting often can feel like you are being neglected, generally, elder neglect involves a carer's failure to provide basic necessities like food, shelter or medical care, or their physical, medical or emotional needs are not being fulfilled.

Case study

A friend of Tom*, an older person in aged care, rang an advocacy service, as they felt that Tom was not receiving appropriate care and services.

When an advocate from the advocacy service made contact with Tom, he disclosed that he had trouble with his eyes and had requested help for a long period of time but nothing had been done. 

He also disclosed that he had left the facility on several occasions and was returned by the police each time. He did not have a diagnosis of dementia. 

Further assessment highlighted that Tom had significant issues of concern, including possible financial, emotional and psychological abuse by family members.

Tom reported feeling pressured by family to access his money. This was resulting in neglect from his family around accessing the services he required.

An advocate visited Tom and escalated a specialist assessment while waiting for a tribunal hearing. 

He reported feeling better having an aged care advocate who listened to him and who helped him take back control of his affairs.

Case study supplied by Advocare

Recognising elder abuse

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for an older person to recognise that they are experiencing elder abuse. And if they do, they may be less inclined to report it because the perpetrator is a family member, friend or carer.

Because of this, it is up to outside friends, family or medical professionals to pick up on subtle queues from their older loved one who are experiencing abuse.

For instance, if you're older loved one is struggling to pay for their weekly newspaper, this could indicate that they are having issues with their finances and may have external factors impacting their ability to pay for expenses they would normally be able to afford.

Bruises or injuries that don't add up with the explanation an older loved one gives you can also be an indication that they might be experiencing physical abuse.

It's important to keep a lookout for any out of the ordinary behaviours that could be a result of elder abuse.

However, elder abuse can appear in many different ways and may not always appear as abuse.

It's important to ask yourself whether someone's actions are putting themself and their interests first before an older person or is putting someone in danger, and this can be the first step towards recognising if it is elder abuse.

What isn’t elder abuse?

While general law in Australia is considered a crime, in most cases it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s elder abuse.

Elder abuse is a crime perpetrated by a trusted person, not a stranger. The act is from a brother, a sister, a neighbour, a carer, or a friend.

For instance, age discrimination is not considered elder abuse, similar to how “scamming” money off an older person is not considered elder abuse and falls under a different crime category.

However, people who are found guilty of abuse of an elder, like physical abuse, will receive harsher punishments and outcomes in court due to the vulnerability of the victim.

Currently, elder abuse is receiving more awareness, but there are no easy solutions to address the current problem.

Who can I contact?

Each State and Territory has a dedicated hotline and service for people to call if they are experiencing elder abuse or they suspect someone they know is being abused that can provide information and support.

The Older Person's Advocacy Network (OPAN) is the overarching advocacy organisation that can help handle cases of elder abuse. They can be contacted on 1800 700 600 from 6am - 10pm, seven days a week.

Or contact your State or Territory advocacy or elder abuse organisation:

ACT  - Older Persons Abuse Prevention Referral Line phone: (02) 6205 3535

NSW - NSW Elder Abuse Helpline phone: 1800 628 221

NT  - Elder Abuse Information Line phone: 1800 037 072

QLD - Elder Abuse Prevention Unit phone: 1300 651 192

SA  - Aged Rights Advocacy Service phone: 08 8232 5377

Elder Abuse phoneline phone: 1800 372 310

TAS  - Tasmanian Elder Abuse Helpline phone: 1800 441 169

VIC  - Seniors Rights Victoria phone: 1300 368 821

WA  - Elder Abuse Helpline phone: 1300 724 679

If you require help or advocacy because of elder abuse, call the above numbers to receive support and advice from friendly experts.

Related content:

The signs of elder abuse
Advocacy
The ongoing issues with ageism

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