What is elder abuse?
Elder abuse is any act that causes harm to an older person and is carried out by someone they know and trust, such as a family member or friend. Elder abuse can happen in many contexts, including in the home and in residential aged care.
Elder abuse is one of the worst manifestations of ageism and inequality in our society and most commonly occurs within the family. While elder abuse is believed to be greatly under-reported, the World Health Organization quotes a 2017 study based on the best-available evidence that estimates that over the past year 15.7 per cent of people aged 60 years and older (i.e. one in six) were subjected to some form of abuse.
Elder abuse violates an older person’s basic right to feel safe. It is a controlling behaviour or action that frightens or intimidates and can be illegal. It can occur at any time and range from subtle to extreme.
The latest figures compiled by the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) state that victims are most likely to be female (72.5 per cent), and the perpetrators are both male (60 per cent) and female (40 per cent).
Approximately 92 per cent of abuse is perpetrated by people related to the older person or in a de facto relationship with the older person. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of abuse is perpetrated by a child of the older person.
Elder abuse can happen to any older person. Elder abuse occurs in all cultures and backgrounds. There is no evidence that elder abuse is greater in different cultural groups. However, experiences of elder abuse vary for people from different cultures. An understanding of cultural aspects is important when someone has been abused.
If abuse occurs, often the older person suffers in silence for the following reasons:
• feeling shame about their adult child’s behaviour;
• not wanting to reveal their personal problems to strangers;
• the tendency to excuse their child’s behaviour;
• reluctance to get their child into trouble, as there has often been no prior interaction with either lawyers or the police;
• little understanding of the long-term implications of legal issues regarding land titles or mortgages.
Elder abuse may be physical, social, financial, psychological or sexual and can include mistreatment and neglect. Often a person will be a victim of more than one type of elder abuse at the same time. A NARI analysis of Seniors Rights Victoria data showed that financial abuse and psychological/emotional abuse together are the most common forms of abuse reported by older Victorians (82 per cent).
Financial abuse is the illegal or improper use of a person’s property, finances or other assets without their informed consent or where consent is obtained by fraud, manipulation or duress. It usually occurs between an older person and a family member but can also occur with carers or friends.
Some examples of financial abuse are:
• a family member taking a loan with a promise of repayment but not paying the money back;
• stealing money or using an older person’s banking or credit card without consent;
• forcefully encouraging changes to a will, the title to a house or other legal document in a way that financially benefits the abuser;
• the sale of any property or assets belonging to the older person without their authority or consent;
• the forced transfers or sales of property or assets;
• promising care/accommodation in return for the transfer of assets.
Physical abuse includes any form of assault, such as hitting, slapping, shoving, pushing and burning. It also includes physical restraint, such as tying a person to a chair or bed, or locking a person in a room.
Psychological or emotional abuse is the infliction of mental or emotional anguish by threats, humiliation or other verbal or non-verbal conduct.
Some examples of psychological or emotional abuse are:
• verbal assaults;
• other abusive behaviours that result in emotional or psychological distress.
Psychological abuse may make the older person feel ashamed or powerless and often occurs in combination with other forms of abuse.
Social abuse is preventing a person from having contact with relatives, friends, service providers and other people, or restricting the person’s activities, thereby increasing their sense of isolation.
Some examples of social abuse are:
• confining a person to their home or room;
• preventing a person from answering the phone or door;
• depriving the person of access to transport;
• intentionally embarrassing the person in front of others;
Sexual abuse is any sexual activity or behaviour for which the older person does not consent or is incapable of giving consent (e.g. a person living with dementia). Sexual assault and abuse includes a range of offences, such as rape, indecent assault and sexual harassment. It can also include sexually exploitative or shaming acts such as:
• leaving a person in a state of undress;
• forcing a person to view sexually explicit materials or images;
• making sexually suggestive comments;
• touching a person inappropriately;
• making uninvited sexual approaches.
Neglect occurs when an older person is deprived of the basic necessities of life. There are two types of neglect: active and passive.
Active neglect is the deliberate withholding of basic care or necessities and includes:
• leaving an older person in an unsafe place or state;
• stopping access to medical treatment;
• abandoning an older person;
• not providing adequate clothing, food and liquids;
• not treating illnesses;
• over- or under-medicating.
Passive neglect is the failure to provide proper care to an older person. This may occur unintentionally and can be due to a carer’s stress, lack of knowledge or ability. A remedy for passive neglect may be getting supports for both the carer and older person.
Mistreatment involves the denial of a person’s right to live safely and independently.
Some examples of mistreatment are:
• denying a person privacy or intimacy;
• withholding information;
• denying a person access to other relatives and friends by stopping visitors or interfering in phone calls;
• restricting a person’s freedom by not letting them leave the house;
• intercepting a person’s mail.
If you are in immediate danger, you should always call the police on 000. Elder abuse is regarded as a form of family violence and recent family violence reforms in Victoria mean that the police are better equipped to understand and deal with situations of elder abuse.
Depending on the type of abuse and an individual’s situation, older people may be able to address the abuse through intervention orders, family dispute resolution and mediation, legal assistance to recover funds and property, and/or changing living or care arrangements.
If you or someone you know is experiencing (or at risk of experiencing) elder abuse, contact Seniors Rights Victoria (SRV) for advice and assistance. SRV is a specialist community legal centre focused on elder abuse. It provides information and referral, legal advice, legal casework and individual advocacy services on elder abuse. Contact the helpline (Monday to Friday, 10–5 pm) on 1300 368 821. There are also many resources on SRV’s website (www.seniorsrights.org.au).
SRV can help any Victorian aged 60 and above, or any Indigenous Victorian aged 45 and above, on matters relating to elder abuse. This includes:
• intervention orders (elder abuse is a form of family violence and intervention orders are often an available option);
• arrangements involving the exchange of assets in return for the promise of care, including “family care”, “assets care” and granny flat arrangements;
• situations involving adult children who return home to live, or who have never left home;
• behaviour that is overly restrictive of a person’s ability to make their own lifestyle decisions, including inappropriate exercises of power under a power of attorney for personal matters;
• financial abuse including:
– debts and loans,
– misuse of financial powers of attorney,
– transfer of property,
– co-ownership disputes;
• advice regarding disputes about contact with grandchildren;
• guardianship and administration;
• future planning to protect against elder abuse, including powers of attorney and wills.
Note that SRV does not draft wills and powers of attorney, unless a case is open and a new will or power of attorney is needed to prevent further abuse occurring.
Elder abuse can arise out of a number of different situations, and many of these are linked to changes a person makes in their life as they get older. These may include changes to their own lives (e.g. living arrangements or increased care needs) and changes made to assist or accommodate other family members (e.g. using property as security for an adult child’s loan, gifting or loaning money, and decisions to do with wills and inheritance).
As older people are living longer, it is important for individuals to consider the long-term effects of any financial decisions, including the expense of future aged care and health needs.
To limit the risk of experiencing financial abuse, older people should:
• seek independent legal advice when making decisions or changes about property and finance;
• consider the implications on social security benefits of decisions about assets, income, superannuation and property;
• create formal written agreements regarding decisions about finance and care arrangements within the family.