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Elder abuse likely on the rise during COVID-19

Last Wednesday, an Older Person's Advocacy Network (OPAN) webinar about elder abuse highlighted that the abuse of older Australians has likely increased since the start of COVID-19.

There is a likelihood that older people may be isolating at home with family or carers, which is increasing their exposure to potential abuse. [Source: Shutterstock]
There is a likelihood that older people may be isolating at home with family or carers, which is increasing their exposure to potential abuse. [Source: Shutterstock]

The webinar covered what elder abuse is and how stressful situations, like the current coronavirus epidemic, has exposed older people to abuse from family members, friends or carers.

Jenny Blakey, Board Member and Chair of Advisory Group at Elder Abuse Action Australia (EAAA) and Manager of Seniors Rights Victoria, was a panellist at this webinar, saying there was a big cause for concern for older people who are likely self-isolating and staying away from their support networks.

Ms Blakey adds that evidence from overseas shows that in times of crisis or great stress, like COVID-19, there is an increase of family violence, and since abuse of older people involves relationships and trust, this is considered a form of family violence.

"It is expected that [elder abuse] is likely to increase as well. We don't have very good or reliable statistics around the prevalence of elder abuse, but we do know it is under-reported. We know that we don't hear about it," says Ms Blakey.

"It is also complicated by the fact that people don't always identify it as abuse, they think about it as problems within the family. There is a lack of communication around what abuse is of older people. 

"We do find that with people experiencing the isolation that is occurring through this kind of crisis, it makes it harder for people to actually report or call for assistance because they are under that degree of control and it makes it difficult for them to talk freely.

"So they are under increased control in their environment and increased isolation, and there is also increased financial pressures."

Up to 14 percent of older people are likely to experience elder abuse in Australia and coronavirus has added a new variable to this abuse.

There is a likelihood that older people may be isolating at home with family or carers, which is increasing the exposure to abuse.

But it can be very hard for older people to know they are being abused by their family or carers, or decide not to do anything about it because they don't want to get the person in trouble.

Ms Blakey gave examples of older people moving into homes with their children as a guise that they will take care of them during the pandemic, but then are being shut away by the family.

"We have had situations where the older person has been forced to live in one room, have their food in one room, they are not allowed out of their room, or they are pushed back into the shed and they have to move back into the shed," explains Ms Blakey.

"The situation gets very very dire, and obviously they are not in good circumstances. There can also be the pressure to give over money and not be clear about is this a gift or a loan…"

Many older people may be in situations where they feel obliged to pick up financial stresses from family members.

Additionally, during COVID, it is a lot easier for family members to take away decision making from the elderly person.

Kate Kennedy, Social Worker at Senior Rights Service, works directly with older people in the community who are at risk of abuse and says COVID-19 is raising a lot of personal issues and struggles among families.

"Older people who have been living in an abusive situation are in a more acute situation now because of COVID," says Ms Kennedy.

"COVID has added another layer of risk."

The panel's recommendation is for the community to look out for their older neighbours or older loved ones, and look for the telltale signs of abuse. This could be unexplained bruises or injuries, looking thin or malnourished, or displaying feelings of anxiety or fear.

If you are experiencing elder abuse or you think you have recognised someone you know who is experiencing elder abuse, contact OPAN on 1800 700 600 to be connected with an aged care advocate; or contact the National Elder Abuse Helpline on 1800 ELDER HELP.

For more information about the coronavirus, visit the Aged Care Guide COVID-19 update page.

Do you have any questions about the coronavirus that you want answered? Tell us in the comments below or email journalist@dps.com.au.

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