One in every six people over the age of 65 (598,000) experienced abuse during a 12 month period according to Australia's long-awaited study into elder abuse. Only a third of victims sought help.
The National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study, conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, found the most common form of abuse was psychological (11.7 per cent or 471,300 people), followed by neglect (2.9 per cent or 115,500 people), (financial 2.1 per cent or 83,800 people) and physical (1.8 per cent or 71,900 people). While sexual abuse was the least prevalent at 1 per cent, it still accounted for a staggering 39,500 cases.
The findings were based on a Survey of Older People (SOP) - 7,000 people aged 65 or older living in the community.
The SOP focused on people who live in the community and did not cover people who live in aged care or could not participate in the survey due to cognitive decline. The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has estimated that the prevalence of physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect in aged care settings is 39.2 per cent.
One of the report's co-authors, AIFS Deputy Director of Research, Rae Kaspiew, said the findings reveal a significant hidden problem in Australia.
"That only a third of victims are seeking help from a third party is a real concern. When abuse remains hidden, this creates the conditions for the abuse to continue," said Dr Kaspiew.
The study found that perpetrators were mostly family members, with adult children the most likely to commit abuse, making up almost one fifth of perpetrators. Friends, neighbours, and acquaintances were also cited as commonly responsible.
"The fact that it's often the people closest to them who are committing the abuse is particularly concerning, as this can create a desire by the victim to keep the abuse a secret to avoid shame, embarrassment and negative repercussions for the perpetrator - especially when it comes to family members," said Dr Kaspiew.
That only a third of victims are seeking help from a third party is a real concern. When abuse remains hidden, this creates the conditions for the abuse to continue
The research reports that the most frequent action taken to stop the abuse involves the victim speaking directly to the perpetrator. Another common measure is breaking contact with or avoiding the perpetrator, though Dr Kaspiew warns this may make the impact of the abuse worse, by increasing the older person's isolation.
"Breaking contact with or avoiding the perpetrator may serve to further exacerbate the effects of the abuse on the older person because of their social withdrawal.
"Family dynamics can make abuse difficult to address. For example, when the abuse is perpetrated by an adult child, the older person may be reluctant to expose the abuse to avoid losing contact with other family members such as grandchildren," said Dr Kaspiew.
When victims do seek help or advice from a third party, family, friends and general practitioners or nurses are the most common sources of support.
Dr Kaspiew said that while anyone can experience abuse, there are certain characteristics that put older people more at risk.
The report found that lower socio-economic status, being single, separated or divorced, living in rented housing, owning a house with a debt against it and poor physical or psychological health are all features that are associated with a higher risk of abuse.
"Elder abuse is something that can happen to anyone, no matter their circumstances. It's important that we do everything we can to reduce the abuse and its impacts," said Dr Kaspiew.
"Evidence tells us we can do this by introducing strategies to reduce the vulnerability of older people to abuse, developing greater measures to raise awareness of elder abuse and the services available to help, as well as improved screening for and assessment of situations where elder abuse may be occurring," she said.
The SOP also looked at whether older Australians had wills, whether they had executed powers of attorney and whether they were involved in family agreements colloquially known as 'granny flat' arrangements.
Elder abuse is something that can happen to anyone, no matter their circumstances. It's important that we do everything we can to reduce the abuse and its impacts.
An additional survey of 3,400 people aged between 18 and 64 examined views about older people and levels of awareness of elder abuse in the community (the Survey of the General Community). It also looked at the extent to which people in the community provide support to older people such as assisting with care, financial arrangements and power of attorney arrangements.
The research program also included the experiences of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) groups.
Jenny Blakey - Co-Chair at Elder Abuse Action Australia said it was time to "break the cycle".
"Australia's National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study is a highly significant piece of research. To put it in a global context, this study is one of just four internationally with sample audiences this big or larger, making the findings incredibly rigorous and providing solid evidence of the prevalence of abuse, the various types of abuse, who experiences abuse, who commits abuse, and the assistance and support sought."
"The research also surveyed people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. As some 20 per cent of older Australians were born in a country where English is not the main language, the findings enabled true multicultural input from across our nation.
"Australia now has the evidence that one in six people over the age of 65 years, experience elder abuse. This equates to 15 per cent of older Australians. We are in a prime position to act to prevent it. We know that the population of older people will more than double in 25 years to 8.8 million people which will be over 20 per cent of Australia's population.
"Astoundingly, the research shows that two thirds of those experiencing abuse, do not seek help at all. Not from family, friends, or professional services. This keeps abuse hidden. Older people are more likely to withdraw to avoid the abuse which exacerbates the isolation of older people and lack of possibility of supports."
Australia now has the evidence that one in six people over the age of 65 years, experience elder abuse. This equates to 15 per cent of older Australians. We are in a prime position to act to prevent it. We know that the population of older people will more than double in 25 years to 8.8 million people which will be over 20 per cent of Australia's population.
Ms Blakey said EAAA looked forward to working on a new national plan with government, older people, community, and services to tackle elder abuse.