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New programs to combat the sexual assault and abuse of older people

With 50 incidences of unlawful sexual contact of an older resident in an aged care facility every week in Australia, new education programs combatting abuse and sexual assault have been launched in an effort to assist health professionals in identifying abuse in their elderly clients.

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Two projects, an OPAN initiative and the #ReadyToListen project, aims to educate health professionals and the aged care workforce about sexual assault and what they can do to help. [Source: iStock]

An Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN) initiative and #ReadyToListen Project have both received a $168,000 grant from the Australian Government to develop these programs, which sits in line with the Government's reform plan to improve the safety of residents in aged care. 

The Abuse of the older person: eLearning program for health professionals, created by OPAN, will be providing health professionals, who have close contact with older people, with the tools to identify assault and the necessary avenues they can take to assist the person.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of OPAN, Craig Gear, says, "Sexual assault and abuse are detrimental to the lives of older people and is an absolute violation of their rights.

"Sexual assault of older people, particularly of older women, has been ignored or placed in the too hard basket for too long.

"As a community, we can and should be doing more to ensure older people living in their own home or residential aged care are safe and feel safe."

OPAN collaborated with health professionals to create the online training program. There are 33 online learning modules aimed towards health and allied health workers, like General Practitioners (GPs), optometrists, and physiotherapists.

The Age Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson AO, was also involved in the development of the training packages, and she believes it can be easily incorporated into health and allied health professionals continuing professional development programs.

Dr Patterson adds that health professionals tend to be the people that older Australians may confide in if they are assaulted or may be an older person's only way of accessing outside help from their situation.

"Professionals I have spoken to in health and other services who come into contact with older people often express reservations or uncertainty about raising the alarm on suspected abuse out of fear they may be breaching confidentiality or privacy laws. Others are simply unaware of appropriate referral pathways," says Dr Patterson.

The OPAN program will be addressing the barriers that health professionals face while also providing knowledge that can prevent abuse and allow them to identify abuse.

This program will also be accessible to those in the residential aged care workforce and will include encouragement to improve sexual assault reporting and responses.

Dr Catherine Barrett, Founder and Director of Celebrate Ageing and the OPAL Institute, has launched the #ReadyToListen project, in partnership with OPAN, which will be raising awareness about elderly sexual assault and encouraging older people and their families to report it, as well as working with aged care providers to develop best practice aged care.

This project will involve Dr Barrett working closely with residential aged care facilities, or services that work with aged care facilities, to assist in improving the workforce's knowledge of sexual assault as well as their capabilities to respond correctly.

Through a recent KPMG survey of the aged care workforce, Dr Barrett says that, shockingly, 58 percent of staff believe sexual assault has no negative impacts on older victims, which demonstrates that most aged care and other services providers are not adequately educated about sexual assault or how it can affect older victims.

Dr Barrett, an advocate for preventing sexual assault of 25 years, says the research shows us that most victims of sexual assault may have dementia and that just because a person with dementia can't articulate the impact of sexual assault doesn't mean there isn't an impact.

"We need to provide aged care service providers the education to understand the devastating impacts of sexual assault and the tools to better identify the risks and support older people who are sexually assaulted," explains Dr Barrett.

"By working with leaders in residential aged care service providers and supporting leaders of change, we can begin to create safer avenues for older people and their families to report sexual assault and to improve the way those reports are addressed.

"...I feel really hopeful that this is something now that we can address."

There are seven stages to the #ReadyToListen project: 

  • Develop an education module and best practice principles for aged care

  • Deliver education to elder abuse services nationally

  • Develop a curriculum for health professionals

  • Host a webinar for residential aged care services

  • Work with older women to develop information for older women about their rights and support services

  • Implement an Aged Care Leadership Course

  • Host online workshops

Dr Barrett is glad to see aged care peak bodies and the Government being more than willing to assist in combating the issue of sexual assault in residential aged care.

Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services, Richard Colbeck, says these initiatives are important and needs to be supported by the Government to reinforce the safety of Australia's most vulnerable.

"Assaults on the elderly - in any form - are deplorable," says Minister Colbeck. 

"These incidents were underlined in the findings of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and the [Federal] Government is more determined than ever to ensure those in care are treated with respect and dignity."

For information or support regarding aged care, please call the Older Persons Advocacy Network on 1800 700 600 or visit the OPAN website.  To learn more about the #ReadyToListen project, visit the OPAL Institute website.

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