The shame of needing an elder abuse awareness day

Bullying, threats, assaults, theft everyday reality for thousands of older Australians

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OUR NATIONAL SCOURGE: The abuse of older Australians diminishes us all. Photo: Shutterstock.

OUR NATIONAL SCOURGE: The abuse of older Australians diminishes us all. Photo: Shutterstock.

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Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15, aims to raise awareness of this systemic behaviour

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Aylin*, a 70- year-old Turkish-speaking woman with poor mobility became increasingly afraid of the verbal, emotional and financial abuse she was experiencing from her 40-year-old daughter Angela*.

One day, after her daughter also threatened to kill her, the police were called to their home and Aylin was referred to the Victorian elder abuse help organisation Better Place Australia Respecting Elders Service.

Aylin told Better Place that she had been managing okay until there was an escalation in the abuse. Angela who was unemployed and had mental health challenges was monitoring her mother's phone calls and texts; and stopping her having any social contact - a situation which escalated even futher during COVID-19 restrictions.

Aylin was experiencing a situation faced by many elder abuse victims. She was scared, isolated, wanted the abuse to stop and no longer wanted her daughter to live with her. But the older woman was unsure what to do as she said she was reliant upon her daughter (who was her primary carer) for some of her daily care needs.

For the workers at Better Place it was a tricky situation. There were limited times and means for them to contact Aylin, due to her daughter being present and monitoring her calls; and Aylin also needed a Turkish interpreter.

A care plan was eventually developed which focused on Aylin's wishes to be free of abuse, to feel safe and to be culturally supported to live independently.

While Aylin was able to reach out for help, many older Australians never do. They simply endure the abuse, usually from a close family member, because they fear the alternatives - having nowhere to live and having to move into a nursing home; getting their adult child in trouble; leaving their adult child with nowhere to live: or being very afraid of what their abuser might do to them.

Many abuse victims have been separated from family or friends and other social contacts by their abuser, and the degree of loneliness and isolation can be immense. Many are afraid of raising the issue because of embarrassment and the belief that such matters are not made public.

As such, the abuse and neglect of older people are hidden social issues. They are not talked about and not well understood within wider society, although entrenched ageism is a major factor.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day

Wednesday, June 15, is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day when organisations and individuals come together to highlight one of the worst manifestations of ageism and inequality in our society.

Elder abuse is 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.

One in every six Australians over the age of 65 - around 600,000 - experience abuse during a 12 month period according to a major study into elder abuse released earlier this year. Only a third of victims seek help leaving around 400,000 suffering in silence each year.

Elder abuse can affect men and women. Photo:Shutterstock.

Elder abuse can affect men and women. Photo:Shutterstock.

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 every year.

The findings were based on a Survey of Older People (SOP) - 7,000 people aged 65 or older living in the community.

The SOP 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, and the fact that people with cognitive decline were not included gives rise to the high likelihood that the 600,000 annual figure is way too low.

Family dynamics

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 Prevalence Study co-author AIFS Deputy Director of Research, Rae Kaspiew.

The research showed 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.

A recent sector-wide summit identified the actions required to make meaningful progress. They are substantial and systemic matters that demand a deep level of commitment to address the issue which include:

Strengthening frontline services - Creating equitable access to services so that all older people can obtain support across prevention, early intervention, response, and recovery

Investing in research - Determining the economic impact of elder abuse and neglect so we understand its true cost, and addressing the gaps in the elder abuse prevalence study

Improving education and focusing on prevention - Investing in primary prevention and awareness campaigns that address ageism, empower older people, and promote respect across the generations

Harmonising laws and procedures - Address the mess of inconsistency across states and government departments that generates confusion and unfairness for older people

Giving older people a voice - Prioritising the stories and experiences of seniors through every step of the process towards an abuse-free Australia

Ten-year strategy

The sector wants to see a 10-year national strategy that delivers an Australia free from elder abuse and includes annual reports to Parliament.

The abuse and neglect of older people is a shameful reflection on our nation and will continue to worsen unless urgent action is taken - Bev Lange, Elder Abuse Action Australia

Elder Abuse Action Australia is the national voice dedicated to ending the abuse and neglect of older people across Australia.

Funded by the Attorney General's office, EAAA aims to address elder abuse and protect the rights of older Australians at both the grassroots and macro level.

"In recognising WEAAD, Australia needs to reconsider how we treat and respond to older people," said EAAA executive director Bev Lange.

"The abuse and neglect of older people is a shameful reflection on our nation and will continue to worsen unless urgent action is taken.

"The number of older people is set to double in the next 25 years. The fact that we need to have an awareness day, that our organisation needs to even exist, is indicative of the scale of this abhorrent social issue."

EAAA co-chair Jenny Blakey said no-one at any age should be subject to abuse. "Ageism can belittle older people and result in a lack of action to tackle elder abuse."

eaaa.org.au

*Names have been changed.

If you are experiencing abuse, call the national elder abuse helpline: 1800-353-374. If you are in immediate danger call Triple Zero.

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