Although population ageing is overwhelmingly a good thing, representing a healthier population overall and a longer more productive lifespan for most, it also means an increase in elder abuse. There is little public awareness of the extent and nature of elder abuse. Consequently, it is rarely recognised even by those who may be perpetuating or on the receiving end of it.
My name’s Gwen. I’m 76 years old. About six months ago my boy Craig got mixed up in gambling and that drug ‘ice’. He got kicked out of the place he was living in because he couldn’t pay the rent. I agreed to him moving in with me because I love him and wanted to help him out.
It was okay at first. But then he got aggressive towards me. He punched the wall near where I was sitting in the kitchen and left a big hole in it. He started taking my pension money. He says he’ll hurt my little dog, Charlie, if I tell anyone. I’m afraid in my home now. But I don’t want to tell the police; what kind of mother would I be if I got my boy into trouble?
Older people experiencing abuse from family members share the same experience as women suffering intimate partner violence in having someone close to them, whom they ought to be able to trust, perniciously erode their sense of safety and wellbeing through excessive use of power and control.
However, when adult children abuse their parents, feelings of parental love and responsibility coupled with shame and guilt for having “failed” as a parent often stop the parent from seeking help and protecting themselves.
The intergenerational nature of elder abuse differentiates it from other forms of family violence. It means that empowerment of older people and recognition of their rights at both a societal and individual level are crucial.
A neglected area of abuse
We don’t know exactly how often elder abuse occurs in Australia. There has never been a population prevalence study. However, up to 6% of older Australians are subjected to abuse in any one year.
The National Ageing Research Institute recently analysed data from Seniors Rights Victoria, the key Victorian statewide service responding to elder abuse. The report found that 92% of elder abuse occurred within the family. Adult sons and daughters perpetrated two-thirds (67%) of this abuse.
Another troubling finding was that abuse of one type rarely occurred in isolation. For example, financial abuse was coupled with another form of abuse in 65% of cases.
While men and women were both affected by elder abuse, men were more likely to be the perpetrators (60%) and women were more likely to be the victims (72.5%). This means that the intersection of age and gender may make older women particularly vulnerable.
As Gwen’s story illustrates, a typical scenario is one in which a middle-aged son or daughter moves back into the family home. This may be because their relationship has broken down, they have become homeless, they have a drug, alcohol or gambling problem or a mental health condition.
Cohabitation of adult children and their elderly parents is a risk factor for abuse. This is often due to broader service system failures to assist adult children manage their problems, or to adequately support parents acting as carers.
Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence does include seniors in its terms of reference. Despite this, the media and societal focus is still mainly on women of child-bearing age and children. We need to recognise that family violence does not stop just because the victim is older. Actually, that is often when it starts.
Prevalent ageist attitudes mean that older people’s rights are minimised or discounted in favour of the interests of younger generations. An example is when adult children take control of their parent’s finances in the expectation that they will one day inherit everything anyway.
Ageism is a key factor
Just as addressing gender inequality and ensuring respect for women are central to stopping violence against women, so is overcoming ageism. Promoting the dignity and inherent value of older people is a crucial component of elder abuse prevention.
In recent years, this issue has attracted some government attention. A helpline operates in every state and territory, but there is no nationally consistent approach. The level of assistance available varies from a telephone and referral service to an integrated legal and case management model, such as that provided by Seniors Rights Victoria.
Elder abuse is experienced at the individual and family level, but to address it we need action at all levels:
Building societal awareness of elder abuse as a serious social and public health problem and a real and devastating family violence issue, and addressing ageism as a key causative factor.
Systematic and ongoing professional development of those who regularly come into contact with older people (for example, GPs and hospital staff), so that they can recognise and respond appropriately to elder abuse.
Empowering older people to safeguard their personal and financial security and providing service responses that uphold the human rights we all share – to live in safety and free from violence.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.
This article was co-authored by Cybele Stockley, project officer from Senior Rights Victoria.
This is part of a series of articles on ageing. Read the others here.
Briony Dow works for the National Ageing Research Institute and the University of Melbourne. She receives funding from the Department of Health and Human Services, Victoria, the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation and the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia. She is a Board member of the Australian Association of Gerontology.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor