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Ageing without fear - Elder abuse discussion papers

June 20 2018 By Seniors Rights Victoria

When Seniors Rights Victoria launched its elder abuse discussion papers recently, the words of former client Maria* were shared with the group of professionals.

Maria found it hard to share her story, older people often do, but she hopes this helps other families. Elder abuse is not a happy story, but changes can be made.
Elder abuse is defined as 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. Elder abuse often occurs within the family or a domestic setting and in 92 per cent of Senior Rights Victoria cases is perpetrated by an adult child against their parent.1 

One of the key results of the 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence was the recognition of elder abuse as family violence.  Nevertheless, the Royal Commission acknowledged that older people have specific needs within the family violence sector. As the reforms continue to progress within Victoria and nationally, gaps remain on how best to integrate older people into family violence.

In order to build understanding between the two sectors, Seniors Rights Victoria consulted with other family violence service providers to produce a suite of discussion papers on elder abuse as family violence, elder abuse and gender and preventing elder abuse. 

In Maria’s circumstances, the abuse issues began after she took in her adult son to help him through difficult personal and financial times. Despite positive beginnings, things quickly soured, with her son refusing to contribute to household expenses, stealing $8000 and some valuable stamps and finally, making physical threats on her life. 

“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat when he was here,” Maria said.

In this case, the police were unable to help Maria, so she reached out to Seniors Rights Victoria. She was supported by a lawyer and a social worker through the stressful court process to have her son removed from the house with an intervention order, and to reconnect with her community through social activities to combat isolation. 

Seniors Rights Victoria is the key state-wide service dedicated to stopping elder abuse. It is a program of Council on The Ageing (COTA), supported by the Victorian Government. Operating under the principal of empowering older people, Seniors Rights Victoria provides information, support, advice, casework and education to help prevent and respond to elder abuse. Unfortunately the reports of elder abuse are rising each year, with the service last year receiving 3300 calls to its Helpline, a 25 per cent increase over the past 3 years.

Manager Jenny Blakey said whilst elder abuse is acknowledged as a form of family violence there is still a gap in understanding that the highest abuse incidences reported are financial, which accounts for 61 per cent of Helpline calls.

The three discussion papers on elder abuse as family violence are:

  • Elder Abuse as Family Violence explains how elder abuse is a form of family violence, and draws attention to its unique causes and characteristics.
  • Elder Abuse, Gender and Sexuality explores the ways gender and sexual identity can affect an individual’s experience of elder abuse, mistreatment and disrespect. It also includes a discussion of the often under-recognised crime of sexual assault of older women.
  • Preventing Elder Abuse describes activities that help prevent elder abuse from occurring, as well as actions that enable people to detect and respond to elder abuse in order to inhibit reoccurrences and prevent long-term harm.
Ms Blakey said the social conditions, or drivers that lead to elder abuse include ageism, which is the way people are treated differently as they age.

“When older people are regarded as less valuable, unable to make decisions for themselves, and are a burden on resources it can result in social and cultural norms where elder abuse is tolerated. Gender inequality and the imbalance of power between women and men as a driver to family violence is also an influence, as women still make up more than 75 per cent of all callers to our Helpline,” Ms Blakey said. 

She said some older women experience violence at the hands of a long term partner or in a new relationship. While women comprise an older cohort of the older population than men, this alone does not explain the disparity. 

“The intersectionality of ageism and gender inequality may make older women at higher risk of abuse,” Ms Blakey said.

The discussion papers research also found other characteristics may place older people at a higher risk or shape their experience of violence, including ethnicity and cultural identity, disability, language skills, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity and religion. Some people, such as women with a disability and Aboriginal populations are subject to higher levels of violence than other members of the population.

“We’ve been working in this space for 10 years now. We are seeking to build understanding so those family violence workers who are assisting older people will be better equipped to recognise and respond to elder abuse,” Ms Blakey said. “Maria’s story reminds us of our resilient clients - and some of the gaps that we need to close to better assist older people like her.”

For free, confidential information on a situation you believe may involve elder abuse please contact Seniors Rights Victoria on 1300 368 821.

(*Names have been changed to protect Maria’s privacy)

1. National Ageing Research Institute in partnership with Seniors Rights Victoria (2015) Profile of elder abuse in Victoria.