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We can all help end elder abuse

Discrimination Age Discrimination
We can all play a part in ending elder abuse by staying connected

There are no exact figures on elder abuse in Australia. There is a study underway, but we may never know the total number of older people experiencing elder abuse in this country because it often takes place in secret and behind closed doors.

Current estimates from Australian Institute of Family Studies are that between 2 and 14 per cent of older Australians experience elder abuse in any given year, with the prevalence of neglect possibly higher.

These are disgraceful numbers that should shame us all.

And what I’m hearing during COVID-19 from peak bodies and advocacy organisations is that the situation for older people at risk of elder abuse has most likely worsened during the pandemic.

There are a few reasons for this, and they’re all linked. Social isolation is a driver of elder abuse – and the COVID-19 pandemic has increased social isolation for many older people.

Some older people have been at heightened risk of elder abuse during physical distancing restrictions because they were in lockdown in the same house as the perpetrator, or unable to get to the usual places where they could seek support.

If you add to this the additional stresses on family members living in close quarters during lockdown, with precarious employment and financial pressures, you have the ‘perfect storm’ of conditions for elder abuse.

Elder abuse can take many forms: financial, physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, and neglect – and it can happen to anyone, regardless of their background or lifestyle.

Elder abuse is never ok under any circumstances. It is a hidden human rights scourge that has no place in our community.

During COVID-19, we’ve seen worrying examples of families using concerns about the pandemic as an excuse for controlling behaviour; limiting older family members’ social interactions far beyond what is necessary to ‘keep them safe’.

I’ve heard of cases of older people moving into the homes of their children to be ‘taken care of’ only to have their money taken from them, or being shut away and forced to live, eat and sleep in the one room.

One front line service told me an older person had been moved into the backyard shed of her own child’s house.

If this disturbs you as much as it disturbs me, there are practical things that you can do about it.

We can all play a part in ending elder abuse by staying connected and continuing to check in with the older people in our lives and our communities. A phone call, a video call, a knock on the door or a letter can make a world of difference because they help reduce social isolation and loneliness, which are factors that heighten the risk of elder abuse.

We can also remember to keep our eyes and ears open - this is particularly important as, at the moment, many older people are unable to see the health and social professionals who are trained to spot the red flags. We need to be vigilant to make sure that elder abuse doesn’t go unnoticed at this time, and that older people at risk do not go unaided.

If you experience, witness or suspect elder abuse, you can call the National Elder Abuse helpline (1800ELDERHelp, 1800 353 374) free and in confidence.

This Monday 15 June is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) – and if that’s not a good day to start taking action, I don’t know when is. Remember, you may think you don’t know any older people who are experiencing abuse, but those estimates from the Australian Institute of Family Studies suggest otherwise.

Together, we can get the message out that help is available – and we can show older Australians that they are not alone.

If you witness or suspect elder abuse, you can call the National Elder Abuse helpline (1800ELDERHelp, 1800 353 374) free and in confidence.

This opinion piece was originally published in NewsCorp regional papers.

Dr Kay Patterson, Age Discrimination Commissioner