Financial, physical, psychological, sexual - how do we stop elder abuse?

Do we need new laws to protect our vulnerable seniors? One American lawman thinks so


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A NATIONAL DISGRACE: Thousands of vulnerably elderly Australians are abused every year.

A NATIONAL DISGRACE: Thousands of vulnerably elderly Australians are abused every year.

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Thousands of older Australians suffer abuse every year at the hands of those they should be able to trust.

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A DAUGHTER from England put her Australian mother's home on a holiday accommodation website and kept the money, a frail, elderly man had his pain meds stolen by local druggies, and a old woman died from neglect after being systematically, financially ripped off by family members.

These were three examples of the abuse of older Australians described at a seminar on elder abuse in the lead to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (June 15).

Speakers at the seminar, which was organised by the NSW Seniors Rights Service and live streamed on the internet, included new NSW Seniors Minister John Sidoti and Age Discrimination Commissioner Kaye Patterson.

Ms Patterson remarked on the appropriateness of the conference theme Lifting up Voices as she said many older people were "suffering in silence".

Ageist attitudes played a major role in elder abuse, she said.

Mr Sidoti said elder abuse was everyone's business and everyone's responsibility.

What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is defined as any act which causes harm to an older person and is carried out by someone they know and trust such as a family member or friend. The abuse may be physical, social, financial, psychological or sexual and can include mistreatment and neglect.

It is a global social issue which affect the health, dignity and human rights of millions of older people throughout the world.

An Australian Institute of Family Studies report says is likely that between two per cent and 14 per cent of older Australians experience elder abuse in any given year, with the prevalence of neglect possibly higher.

The report adds: "The available evidence suggests that most elder abuse is intra-familial and intergenerational, with mothers most often being the subject of abuse by sons, although abuse by daughters is also common, and fathers are victims too.

Grooming

"Financial abuse appears to be the most common form of abuse experienced by elderly people, and this is the area where most empirical research is available. Psychological abuse appears slightly less common than financial abuse, and seems to frequently co-occur with financial abuse, suggesting a pattern of behaviour analogous to grooming in the sexual abuse context.

"For some women, abuse in older age reflects the continuation of a long-term pattern of spousal abuse," says the report.

Often called a silent crime because it usually takes place behind closed doors with victims reluctant or unable to come forward and complain about familial or non familial but still carer, perpetrators, elder abuse is a complicated construct.

Social isolation, loneliness, dementia, physical or emotional frailty and fear can all pre-dispose a elderly person to abuse.

The abuse can occur across all socio economic areas and neighbours, friends and medical supports are often ignorant that abuse is happening.

The term "inheritance impatience" is often used to describe the financial abuse of older people by family members who often don't see what they're doing as abuse as they believe their parent's money will come to them eventually anyway.

Financial powers of attorney can be abused when family members have control of older peoples' finances.

Criminalisation

Former San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood has called for the criminalisation of elder abuse in Australia.

Former US District Attorney Paul Greenwood

Former US District Attorney Paul Greenwood

Under current laws elder abuse can only be prosecuted under fraud charges in the case of financial crimes or assault charges in the case of physical abuse. Paul believes these laws are ill-equipped to adequately address the scope and seriousness of elder abuse crimes.

Paul who was involved in the prosecution of more than 600 felony cases of both physical and financial abuse of older and dependent adults and testified before the US Senate Committee on Ageing several times, is a keynote speaker at next month's Elder Abuse Conference in Brisbane.

"There are two major obstacles that keep the issue of elder abuse in the shadows - silence and a lack of criminal legislation," he said.

"Victims are often embarrassed or afraid to report the issue in fear of retaliation or because of an unfounded belief that the authorities will remove their independence.

Human crisis

"In Australia and the UK, not only are the victims silent, but so is the legal system, as there is no specific criminal stature relating to these acts.

"Similar to laws surrounding suspected child abuse, Australia and the UK need to consider mandatory reporting for professionals such as caregivers, medical personnel, law enforcement and paramedics, who are likely to notice the signs of elder abuse.

"For 22 years, I prosecuted those responsible for the murder, rape, robbery, neglect and financial exploitation of older adults and it is time that we confront this issue for what it is: a genuine human crisis.

"Being reminded of my own parents when working with these victims has been incredibly motivating and has fuelled my drive to bring justice to those who have been subjected to elder abuse.

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