Elder abuse in Australia is prevalent and multi layered, argues Seniors Rights Victoria Policy Officer Melanie Joosten.
Picture a man whose adult son moves back home and exposes him to drug abuse and aggressive verbal attacks.
Now think of a woman who sells her home and moves in with her daughter’s family, only to find she’s expected to do all the cooking, cleaning and childminding for the extended family, and to pay for their renovations.
And there’s also that woman whose husband has been violent and controlling for over fifty years of marriage.
These are all examples of elder abuse, a term used to describe abuse of an older person by any person of trust. It could be a family member, friend, neighbour or carer, and may include physical, financial, psychological, social and sexual abuse. Neglect can also constitute abuse.
While it’s difficult to say how often elder abuse occurs in Australia, global estimates suggest up to 14% of older people are victims. Elder abuse can have serious consequences. As well as direct effects such as physical injury or financial hardship, it can cause stress, depression and anxiety.
Elder abuse can shorten your life, too. People who experience elder abuse have an increased susceptibility to illness and can be more likely to die early.
As a form of family violence, elder abuse most often occurs within the home or family, and is usually perpetrated by an adult son or daughter against their ageing parent. It includes intimate partner violence which may be the result of a new relationship or a continuation of a lifetime’s exposure to violence.
But while it’s encouraging to see the Victorian Government formally recognise elder abuse as a form of family violence, as part of broad reform to the family violence sector, the unique drivers and conditions that lead to elder abuse must be taken into consideration when devising prevention and intervention measures.
For example, while gender inequity is recognised as driving family violence, elder abuse is largely a result of ageism and the marginalisation of older people. Ageist stereotypes and assumptions about the capabilities of older people can be disempowering and takes away older people’s agency and power. This is borne out when older people may be expected to give up control of their finances, allow their children to make decisions for them, or move into an aged care facility rather than live alone.
Men experience elder abuse too, although as a consequence of the compounding factors of ageism and gender inequity, and because women tend to live longer, women report abuse 2.5 times more often than men.
Like people of any age, older people form a diverse group. Older people who belong to one or more disadvantaged groups may face increased difficulties in responding to elder abuse as a result of compounded layers of disadvantage.
There are many ways of supporting and empowering older people to help them avoid elder abuse.
Sometimes older people enter into ‘assets for care’ arrangements with family members where care and assistance will be provided to the older person in return for money or property. At other times older parents find themselves giving financial assistance to adult children or providing them with accommodation. The use of written rather than verbal agreements can help ensure these kind of arrangements are fair to all parties and can be useful if the relationship breaks down.
Ageist stereotypes and assumptions about the capabilities of older people can be disempowering and takes away older people’s agency and power.
While financial abuse is the most common type of elder abuse, multiple types of abuse often occur together. Addressing elder abuse can often involve considering an older person’s wishes and their needs regarding their relationship with family members, physical and mental health, income and assets, housing, and other supports.
This means there is a role for everybody to play in identifying and combatting elder abuse: health services, financial institutions, law enforcement, support agencies, legal services, aged and community care providers. Each engagement with an older person is an opportunity to assess our own assumptions and stereotypes about age and better understand the rights and autonomy of older people.
Professionals also need to be better trained so they can recognise the risk factors of abuse and know what to do.
While many health and community sector workers may be aware that some older people are reliant on the perpetrator of abuse for their care needs, which can make it difficult to seek help, it’s also crucial to understand that many perpetrators are dependent on their older parents too – for housing, money and other support.
This demonstrates only one of the many complexities of elder abuse.
As the Victorian Government goes about reforming the family violence sector, it’s critical it also continues to consider older women as victims and survivors of intimate partner violence, and also older men and women who experience elder abuse.
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