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Violence, neglect and abuse, UN OEWGA, New York

Discrimination Age Discrimination

Thank you Mr/Madam Chair.

I am very grateful for the opportunity, as a member of an NHRI, to participate in this panel on violence, neglect and abuse of older people. I speak on behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission in my role as Australia’s Age Discrimination Commissioner.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is an independent government organisation which since 1986 has been charged with protecting and promoting human rights in Australia.

Among other federal anti-discrimination laws, the Commission has responsibility for administering the Age Discrimination Act 2004. Under this law, it is unlawful for a person to treat someone less favourably on ground of age in specific areas including employment, education, accommodation and provision of goods and services.

The Age Discrimination Commissioner is a statutory appointment made under the Age Discrimination Act 2004. The first Age Discrimination Commissioner was appointed in 2011 and I am the second appointed in July 2016. My responsibilities include:

  • Raising awareness of age discrimination,
  • Educating the community about the impact of age discrimination, and
  • Monitoring and advocating for the elimination of age discrimination across all areas of public life.

Additionally, Australia has other wide-ranging protections for older Australians. These include:

  • A three pillar retirement income system comprising of a non-contributory Age Pension, superannuation with compulsory and voluntary contributions.
  • A universal healthcare system including free access to public hospitals, subsidised medical services and pharmaceuticals, preventative health programs such as certain free vaccinations and medical screenings.
  • An aged care system that recognises and supports the notions of ‘ageing in place’ and ‘continuum of care’ by providing a mix of residential, community and home care options as well as an Aged Care Complaints Commissioner and protections under the federal Aged Care Act 1997.

The focus of this afternoon’s panel is on violence, neglect and abuse of older people. This is one of the key areas I have committed to focus on during my term.

There is a lack of precise data about the prevalence of elder abuse in Australia. Based on available evidence collated by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, it is likely that between 2-10% of Australians experience elder abuse in any given year.

Forms of abuse include physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse and neglect. Financial abuse appears to be most common followed by psychological abuse. One study suggests that neglect could be as high as 20% among older women.

Most abuse appears to be intergenerational and intra-familial. Older women are more likely to be victims than older men and perpetrators are commonly close family members such as sons and daughters.

As Australia’s ageing population continues to increase, the risk and incidence of elder abuse is likely to become more critical. The number of Australians aged 65 and over, around 15% of the population, is expected to almost double within 40 years. By 2055, there will be fewer than three people of traditional working age supporting every person over 65.

Risk factors commonly associated with age, such as declining physical and mental health, social isolation and ageism may make older generations more vulnerable to abuse. The rising cost of living and decreasing homeownership for younger generations may further put pressure on older people to transfer wealth within the family, leading to an increased risk of financial abuse.

We are already seeing signs of increasing demand for elder abuse services in Australia. Calls to elder abuse telephone helplines have more than doubled within a year and it is expected that these figures will continue to rise.

Now more than ever, we need to pay attention to the rights and needs of older people. With respect to elder abuse, we need to ensure not only that older people are protected and safe from abuse but also that their dignity, autonomy and right to self-determination are respected.

In 2016, the Australian Government committed to protecting better the rights of older Australians, including from all forms of abuse. The Government has commissioned the Australian Institute of Family Studies to conduct a literature review and scoping study into elder abuse in Australia. Both studies are now complete though the latter is yet to be released.

The Australian Government has also committed to funding a national prevalence study. It is expected that results from the study will assist to improve the evidence base for developing responses to this serious and complex issue.

Last month, on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, the Australian Law Reform Commission released its findings and recommendations following a 15-month national inquiry into elder abuse. The report, Elder Abuse - A National Legal Response, was commissioned by the Australian Government and is the result of 117 national stakeholder meetings and more than 450 submissions.

For example, at the Eastern Community Legal Centre in the Australian State of Victoria, over 100 nurses, police, Aged Care Assessment Teams, carers etc. came together to discuss and contribute to a joint submission to the law reform discussion paper of draft recommendations.

One of the recurring themes from the public submissions was in relation to the ‘complex and multidimensional’ nature of elder abuse and the need for a range of options and responses to this multi-faceted problem.

The report responds to this by making 43 recommendations addressing a range of specific topics including: aged care, wills, superannuation, banking, social security and safeguards around making of enduring powers of attorney and guardianship (these are tools that enable a person to appoint someone to make decisions on their behalf, should they later lose capacity or have reduced capacity to make decisions).

In addition to recommendations for law and policy reform, the report also recommends the development of a National Plan. The idea of a National Plan envisages a longer term integrated approach to policy and planning with a view to end elder abuse. Components of the Plan may include: national awareness and community education campaigns, training for people working with older people, building the capacity of existing helplines and supporting other services and initiatives.

I have an absolute aversion to reports that do not get implemented. I am determined to ensure that this report on elder abuse does not sit on a shelf and that as many of the recommendations are implemented as possible. I know that the Australian Government is already working towards implementation.

I want to acknowledge that a great deal of innovative work is being done at the community level to respond and provide services to abuse victims. I would like to take this opportunity to commend and acknowledge those who continue to work tirelessly on limited resources and time to protect older people from abuse both in Australia and other countries.

Examples of such initiatives in Australia include a family mediation and counselling service that focuses on empowering older people in situations of conflict. Also health justice partnerships, where lawyers with elder abuse expertise work in collaboration with health professionals in hospitals and other health settings. 

I would like to mention in particular an innovative program being undertaken at St. Vincents Hospital in Melbourne.  A social worker, Meghan O’Brien (as part of her PhD), has developed a program which involves all the health professionals from a most senior level down.  They are trained to identify older people at risk of abuse.  In a 4 year period there were, from memory, about 400 cases of which 70%, on further examination, involved elder abuse.  They now have a part-time lawyer on the team in the hospital assisting patients to address the issues they are facing and educate them about their rights.

Violence, neglect and abuse of older people is a dark and hidden scourge in our communities. It is real and it is rife. It touches all aspects of our society and it is all of our responsibility. 

I believe there is a lot that can be done through the sharing of best practice and knowledge around elder abuse either through existing frameworks or other means to expedite the protection of older people around the world. The Australian Human Rights Commission would welcome continuing discussions at the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing.

As we progress with our discussions, we also need to ensure that we continually build on our experience and move forward in our mission to eliminate the abuse of older people. Many older people, especially those who are currently suffering or reaching the end of their lives, need relief now. This should be upper-most in our minds, those in their 80s and 90s can’t wait.

Eliminating abuse against older people will not be an easy task. But if we all share in this mission – understand that older people, like everyone else, have a right to self-determination, to be respected and live lives of dignity free from violence, neglect and abuse – then change is achievable.

Dr Kay Patterson, Age Discrimination Commissioner