While most of us wouldn’t dream of abusing our ageing parents or other older people in the community, sadly elder abuse is a global problem, with around 1 in 6 older people facing abuse worldwide. Evidence suggests that elder abuse is only being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with social isolation a key factor. So how do you recognise elder abuse, what are the signs of elder abuse and what can you do to help?
What is elder abuse? Elder abuse definition
According to the World Health Organisation, elder abuse can be defined as “a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person”.
Basically, it’s where a person takes advantage of an older person which hurts or harms them. Sadly it’s often caused by someone the older person trusts – usually a family member, a neighbour or a carer either in the home or in an aged care facility. This can often make it hard to detect, or difficult for the older person to report or seek help.
What are the types of elder abuse?
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.
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.
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.
Physical abuse: Inflicting pain or injury by hitting, slapping, pushing or using restraints.
Sexual abuse: Any sexual activity for which the person has not consented.
What are the signs of elder abuse?
It’s our collective responsibility to look out for our elders and the older people in the community. We should be on the look out for signs of elder abuse, some of which are listed below. The NSW Ageing and Disability Commission has a more comprehensive list of the types and signs of elder abuse, as well as some case studies, some of these have been quoted below.
Emotional and social abuse
- Social isolation, not seeing the person out and about where you previously would have, or being denied access
- Feelings of helplessness
- Sadness or grief at the loss of interactions with others
- Depression, tearfulness
- Inadequate clothing
- Poor personal hygiene
- Lack of medical or dental care, or injuries that have not been properly cared for
- Absence of required aids such as walking frames, glasses, hearing aids etc
- Changes to wills or power of attorney
- Stockpiling of unpaid bills or an empty fridge
- Disparity between living conditions and money
- No money to pay for essentials for the home including food, clothing and utilities
- Internal or external injuries such as sprains, dislocations, fractures etc.
- Evidence of hitting, punching or shaking, such as broken or healing bones
- Burns from ropes, irons, matches, hot water etc
- Unexplained incontinence
- Torn or bloody underclothing or bedding
- Human bite marks
- Anxiety around the alleged perpetrator
What can I do if I suspect abuse?
If you suspect someone is in immediate danger, call 000.
If there is no immediate danger, the first thing you can do is to try and talk to the person experiencing the abuse. It should be in a safe place, where they are away from the perpetrator.
Take care to:
- Listen (write notes if you think it will help)
- Take their concerns seriously
- Let them know it’s not their fault
- Make them aware of services available (see who to call below)
- Respect their right to make their own decisions in their own time (they might not be ready to make a report now, but now you know, you can observe and help)
- Not to confront the abuser as it might cause more harm than good
If you are concerned that the abuse may go unchecked and the person doesn’t want to report it, you can also speak to professionals who can give you information and advice.
There is the National Elder Abuse Phone line and services in each state and territory.
National Elder Abuse Hotline – 1800-353-374
- Seniors Rights Service 1800-424-079
- Elder Abuse Helpline 1800-628-221
- Seniors Rights Victoria 1300-368-821
- Uniting Communities’ Elder Abuse Unit 8342-1800
- Aged Rights Advocacy Service 1800-700-600
- SA Elder Abuse Prevention Phone Line 1800-372-310
- Queensland Elder Abuse Helpline 1300-651-192
- Elder Abuse Prevention Unit
- WA Elder Abuse Helpline 1300-724-679
Tasmanian Elder Abuse Helpline 1800-441-169
COTA Tas 6231-3265
Older Persons ACT Legal Service 6243-3436
NT Elder Abuse Information Line 1800-037-072
Some useful links
The Senior wrote an excellent summary of the issue – https://www.thesenior.com.au/story/6788970/you-can-help-stamp-out-abuse/
Senior Rights Victoria Elder Abuse toolkit – https://toolkit.seniorsrights.org.au/toolkit/what-is-elder-abuse/
NSW Ageing and Disability Commission publication – what is abuse and neglect – https://www.ageingdisabilitycommission.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/677245/Abuse-signs-and-symptoms.pdf
Relationships Australia explainer on elder abuse – https://www.relationships.org.au/relationship-advice/relationship-advice-sheets/what-is-elder-abuse
Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN) explainer on elder abuse – https://opan.com.au/elder-abuse/