What is elder abuse?

older lady vulnerable to elder abuseWhat is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is any act which causes harm to an older person and is carried out by someone they know and trust. The abuser may be a son or daughter, grandchild, partner, other family member, friend or neighbor. Seniors Rights Victoria works to prevent & respond to elder abuse.

 

What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is any act which causes harm to an older person and is carried out by someone they know and trust. The abuser may be a:

  • son or daughter
  • grandchild
  • partner
  • other family member
  • friend
  • neighbour

Abuse can be unintentional or deliberate. The harm caused to an older person may range from the unintended effects of poor care through to serious physical injury inflicted deliberately. Harm can also include emotional harm and financial loss including the loss of a home and belongings.

The older person may be dependent on the abuser, for example if they rely on the abuser for care. It is also common for the abuser to depend on the support of the older person, for example for accommodation. Sometimes, there may be a co-dependent relationship where both the older person and the abuser depend on each other.

Abuse of older people by someone who is not part of a trusting relationship, such as workers and business owners, does not fall under the definition of ‘elder abuse’ used in this Tool Kit. For information about consumer-based abuse such as scams and rip offs contact Consumer Affairs Victoria. For information about abuse in a residential care setting or by a worker from a commonwealth care provider contact Elder Rights Advocacy.

What are the types of elder abuse?

Elder abuse can take many forms. Often more than one type of abuse can be used.

Emotional (or psychological) abuse: Using threats, humiliation or harassment causing distress and feelings of shame, stress or powerlessness. It often occurs in combination with other forms of abuse.

Neglect: Failing to provide the basic necessities of life, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Financial abuse: Using someone’s money, property or other assets illegally or improperly or forcing someone to change their will or sign documents. This is the most common form of abuse seen at Seniors Rights Victoria.

Physical abuse: Inflicting pain or injury by hitting, slapping, pushing or using restraints.

Social abuse: Forcing someone to become isolated by restricting their access to others including family, friends or services. This can be used to prevent others from  finding out about the abuse.

Sexual Abuse: Any sexual activity for which the person has not consented.

Some forms of abuse are criminal acts, for example physical and sexual abuse. Alleged criminal activity should be reported to the police. See When should I involve the Police and what can they do? for more information.

More information

See signs of elder abuse and supporting someone who has experienced abuse.

What is the age at which someone is considered ‘older’ or an ‘elder’?

When choosing an age to define ‘older’ people, 65 years is commonly used, however different state and commonwealth programs may have differing age eligibility criteria. Organisations may also have their own age-related criteria. For example, at Seniors Rights Victoria we work with Victorians aged 60 and over and Indigenous Victorians aged 45 and over.

Aboriginal people

White colonisation of Australia has had a dramatic effect on Aboriginal people. So much so that Aboriginal Australians grow older at a much faster rate than white Australians and have a significantly shorter life expectancy. For this reason, when choosing an age to define ‘older’ for Aboriginal Australians, 50-55 years of age is commonly used. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians may be eligible for aged care services at a younger age than other Australians. See ‘What do I need to know about working with Aboriginal people?‘ for more information.

Why does elder abuse occur?

There are many schools of thought on why elder abuse occurs. At Seniors Rights Victoria we see that social attitudes play a significant part. For example, negative views of ageing  in our society cause the devaluing of older people. Ageist attitudes and stereotypes prevail, and this causes some people to abuse older people.

Sometimes abuse occurs as a result of an inability to cope with the person’s care needs, frustration, ignorance or negligence. Some abusers may have problems with alcohol, drugs or gambling. Sometimes the abuse began in earlier years and continues through into old age. The important thing to remember is that there is never any excuse for abuse.

See Signs of elder abuse and scroll down to What are the risk factors? for more information.

Our Resource Library also contains more information about research into the causes of elder abuse.

Who commits elder abuse? Who are the abusers?

Elder abuse is typically carried out by someone close to an older person. It can also be carried out by more than one person, for example a son and daughter-in-law or a spouse and adult child.

Research shows that sons and daughters are most likely to be responsible for the abuse of older people (University of Western Australia, 2011, ‘An Examination of The Extent of Elder Abuse in WA’) .

Who is at risk of elder abuse?

We know that around 4-6 per cent of older people experience elder abuse. Australia’s population is ageing, so more and more of us will be affected in the future.

Any older person can be subjected to elder abuse. It occurs to men and women from all cultural backgrounds and lifestyles.

Issues contributing to risk may include a history of family violence, isolation, dependency and carer stress. See What are the risk factors for elder abuse? for more information.

Is it elder abuse if the person neglects their own needs?

Self neglect includes behaviour such as poor hygiene and compulsive hoarding. Older people have the right to make their own lifestyle choices, even if those choices put them at risk of harm.

Self-neglect is not considered to be elder abuse, but it can co-exist with abuse by a trusted person. For example, an older person may neglect their own needs due to low self-esteem or stress caused by someone’s abusive behaviour. See ‘What should I know about supporting someone who may be neglecting their own needs’  for more information.

Is elder abuse family violence?

Elder abuse is a form of family violence. Family violence can occur between any family members (parents, spouses, children, partners) whether living together or not. The legal protections available to people who experience family violence apply equally to older people. This includes the right to apply for an intervention order to protect someone from further abuse. The Family Violence Protection Act covers partners and other family members and carers.

Do family violence services work with people experiencing elder abuse?

Even though family violence services tend to focus on younger women and women and children who are abused by male partners, many can also work with older women experiencing elder abuse. Family violence services are becoming increasingly responsive to the needs of older women and this is being further enhanced with training and information resources.

The focus on women in family violence services means that they do not usually work with men who are experiencing abuse. Seniors Rights Victoria assists males and around one quarter of our clients are male. Information about working respectfully with men and women can be found under ‘Working with Older People’.

More information:

Domestic Violence Resource Centre Vic

Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service

As a family violence worker, what do I need to know about elder abuse?

In general, older people’s experiences of elder abuse can be seen as different to younger people’s experiences of family violence. Family violence is believed to be caused by negative and limiting social attitudes to women, or sexism. Elder abuse is believed to be caused by negative and limiting social attitudes towards older people, or ageism. A significant proportion of those who abuse older people are women – often the daughters of the abused person.

For some people, such as where elder abuse is the continuation of a life long pattern of family violence, both sexism and ageism apply. Whether the cause is sexism, ageism or both, there is a denial of human rights that results suffering and it’s suffering that can be prevented by changing social attitudes.

Like other forms of family violence, elder abuse is often hidden. Older people experiencing abuse can be reluctant to report or speak about it, and they may feel shame or guilt about the behaviour of their family member or friend. They may even want to protect them. Sometimes elder abuse is a pattern of family violence that continues into older age. Often elder abuse starts when, because of ageing, the older person becomes more vulnerable, or relationships in the family change. It is common for the older person and the abuser to depend on each other: for care, financial support, housing or transport.

When working with older people who have experienced abuse, it is important to take into account not just the older person’s need for safety but also their need to maintain their relationships as much as possible and to retain or regain control over their own life. Offering information to assist in addressing the perpetrator’s problems while supporting the victim could lead to a better outcome for the older person.

More information:

Domestic Violence Victoria’s ‘Responding to the Needs of Older Women: Elder Abuse Prevention and Response Project

Acknowledgment

Some content on this page has been drawn from With Respect to Age 2009 and Elder Abuse Prevention Strategy Workshop Manual 1.

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