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Nationwide study investigating prevalence of elder abuse

The Australian Institute of Family Studies recently announced they will be conducting the first large-scale study into the prevalence of elder abuse in the country, with the aim of the research to assess the nature of elder abuse and how wide-spread it is in Australia.

The Elder Abuse National Research Project will explore the extent of elder abuse among older Australians aged 65 and over. [Source: Shutterstock]
The Elder Abuse National Research Project will explore the extent of elder abuse among older Australians aged 65 and over. [Source: Shutterstock]

With the intention to build on the knowledge around the problem, the study Elder Abuse National Research Project will explore the extent of elder abuse among older Australians aged 65 and over.

The study is a part of the National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians 2019-2023 currently in progress by the Federal Government.

Dr Rae Kaspiew, Senior Research Fellow for the Elder Abuse National Research Project says, “In Australia and overseas, there is increasing recognition of the problem of elder abuse. 

“We need to understand more about who experiences elder abuse, who perpetrates it and what abuse types are the most common so that we can understand how to develop better ways of dealing with it. 

“At the end of research, we should have a good understanding of the proportion of the population aged 65 and older that experiences elder abuse, including emotional, physical, financial, sexual abuse and neglect. 

“We will also know a lot more about how it affects them than we know now, and whether some people are more susceptible – for example because they are socially isolated – than others.”

The studies main element will survey 7,000 people aged 65 and over who are still living in the community, not in an aged care home, and examine their experiences of elder abuse with a particular focus on the occurrence and nature of the abuse.

The research will also look into the characteristics of people who experience elder abuse and who commits the abuse, the impact of and response to the abuse, such as whether it was reported or not.

The second element of the study involves a survey of 3,500 people aged 18-64 years of age, with the intention to assess knowledge of elder abuse, the attitudes this selected group has towards older people and whether the participants provide assistance to older people through financial or decision-making matters.

It is expected that the survey will examine whether participants have any elder abuse-related concerns about their friends and family aged 65 and older, if they live in the community or residential aged care settings.

“Unless you have rigorous empirical evidence about a problem, it is very hard to know how to address it,” says Dr Kaspiew. 

“In Australia, efforts to study the prevalence of other problems such as family violence and child abuse, are in train for the same reasons. Governments and researchers see the need for evidence so policy responses are developed on the basis of good information.”

The study is currently underway with the aim to deliver a research report to the Australian Attorney General’s Department in early 2021.

A recent background paper was released considering the definition of elder abuse that will be used in the prevalence study. 

The background study was able to provide a working definition that will be applied in the research of the Elder Abuse National Research Project.

The current definition is “a single or repeated act or failure to act, including threats, that results in harm or distress to an older person”.

Dr Kaspiew says, “These occur where there is an expectation of trust/and or where there is a power imbalance between the party responsible and the older person.

“It is important to note that at the conclusion of the study, it is expected a final research-based definition will have been developed that is appropriate to the Australian context and can be used to support any future research conducted in Australia. 

“In the interim, it is expected that the Australian Government will continue to refer to the World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of elder abuse.”

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Older Person’s Advocacy Network, Craig Gear, says the organisation believe it’s an issue when there is not a lot of empirical data around the abuse of older people in Australia, which emphasises how taboo the topic still is.

“People are still very reluctant to come forward with their experiences of abuse, which means that the data we do have is seriously lacking. We will not be able to properly address the abuse of older people without more extensive research,” says Mr Gear.

“OPAN believes that by developing an accepted definition of elder abuse, it will mean more research can be conducted to measure the extent of abuse by using that definition. It’s important that we protect older people, and the beginning of this is defining the issue and measuring the extent to which it is occurring. 

“OPAN supports this study as it will more adequately protect older people and finally shed light on the extent of elder abuse in Australia.

“Something that is always said is that we have never truly known how prevalent the abuse of older people is in our society. A study like this will inform the sector and the Australian Government about how widely-ranging the problem is. 

“From this, we can work together to develop strategies and policies that effectively address elder abuse within our society.”

To find out more about the study and the Government plan, click here for the National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians (Elder Abuse) 2019–2023.

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