The unspoken epidemic of elder abuse

Aug 23, 2019

“Respect your elders,” an age-old term that we’ve all heard time and time again. Although this aphorism has been a staple for many years, it doesn’t appear that all members of the Australian community have been practicing this preached behaviorThe issue of elder abuse within our immediate and wider neighbourhoods is prevalent today and forecasted to grow in future years. 

This form of abuse is one of the most complicated, personal and underreported within our community. Why? Because it usually occurs at the hands of someone that person trusts – be that the elderly person’s child, extended family member or carer. 

The World Health Organisation estimates that about 1 in 6 people aged over 60 will be victims each year. This alarming figure reinforces why it’s so important to give a voice to those affected by this unspoken epidemic, while reciprocally playing a key role in diminishing this unfathomable number. 

Hidden victims in plain sight 

The United Nations, Department of Human Rights projects that there are 20,000 unreported cases of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation within the NSW/ACT region per year and approximately 100,000 throughout Australia. By 2025, they anticipate that elder abuse will cost the health system over $350million each year. 

If you find these projections surprising or dismaying, it’s for good reason. While it’s hard to diagnose what exactly constitutes as elder abuse, experts most widely define it as ‘abuse of an older person (including physical, psychological, financial or by neglect), by a person they trust’. 90% of all reported cases were perpetrated by a family member. In most of these cases, it was also found that the victim and abuser live in the same household and the victim was in social isolation from friends, neighbours, and/or kin who might otherwise formally deter wrongdoing.  

If this issue wasn’t heartbreaking and complicated enough, being faced with the ultimatum of reporting a loved one who you inherently want to protect, or enduring ongoing mistreatment is unfathomable. This undoubtedly gives reason to why these statistics may not align with our standing preconceptions of what’s happening for our older community members behind the closed doors of our surrounding houses, streets and neighbourhoods. 

From family agreement to family breakdown 

According to a report conducted by the ABC in 2018a large proportion of people that fall under this scope are “the capable but vulnerable” victims of financial abuse. Capable, because they’re perfectly able to make their own decisions  but vulnerable because they’re largely dependent on their circle of trust (i.e. family or carer)

In terms of financial abuse, experts say that this most commonly manifests as the result of family agreements. You know, those ad-hoc, non-legally binding agreements that are made between parents, children, and families surrounding who the house might go to, a parent letting a family stay in their house rent-free in exchange for taking care of them, or a parent giving their children an interest-free loan (etc.)  

While most of these agreements start with the best intentions, and many work well, problems can arise when circumstances change – like a new partner coming into the picture or serious illness, for example. While financial issues are certainly not the only factor that contributes to elder abuseit’s important to keep in mind that both surface-level matters and deeper issues, can be mitigated using the right resources and methods. 

Some additional causes for concern to watch out for may include: 

  • The older person having no say in important decisions in their life. 
  • An older person is not allowed to carry their own money or bank card. 
  • Someone is preventing an older person from seeing their friends, family members or professionals. 
  • You notice an older person has bruising and marks on their face or hands. 
  • An older person tells you they do not feel safe when a particular person is around. 
  • You notice that an older person is unusually distressed or anxious before or after a visit. 

 What can be done? 

Although elder abuse is a complicated issue, if you are concerned that someone in your life may be suffering such abuse, or you feel the need to resolve your relationship with someone in your own life – it’s always better to trust your gut, speak up and work towards fixing a problem… Even if that problem is not 100% clear. As a starting point, CRS is always here to offer advice and guidance. While we understand that it’s difficult to reach out for help in such circumstances, know that every conversation that we have or service that we offer is kept confidential, non-adversarial, impartial, voluntary and has a focus on self-determination. 

Understanding that the issue of elder abuse is very personal in nature, and many older people do not want to initiate legal proceedings – we offer a range of alternative services to help alleviate stress on victims, family members and other concerned parties. Depending on the situation, this may include formal mediation sessions or informal facilitated conversations to help participants reach the restorative process. Alternative dispute resolution processes cahelp Canberrans to: manage, prevent and resolve noted problems with others; create plans for the future (e.g. health, finances, and living arrangements; avoid the financial cost and broken relationships of going to court; make their own decisions; and more. 

For help in assessing your situation and figuring out next steps, contact us for assistance, or discover more information and support resources here by downloading our elder abuse brochure. 

As the quote goes,  

learn from the people who have walked the path before you and respect them, because someday – and sooner than you could ever imagine – you’re going to be old too.” 

Help us as we work towards helping these vulnerable community members, while importantly paving the road to creating a restorative community where this issue can be negated for our elderly population, now and into the future. 

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