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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:
Abuse is usually intentional. The harm caused to an older person may range from the effects of verbal harassment 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.
Elder abuse can take many forms. Often more than one type of abuse can occur.
Using threats, humiliation or harassment causing distress and feelings of shame, stress or powerlessness. It often occurs in combination with other forms of abuse.
Intentionally failing to provide the basic necessities of life such as food, medication, warmth etc
Using someone’s money, property or other assets illegally or improperly or forcing someone to change their will or sign documents.
Inflicting pain or injury by hitting, slapping, pushing or using restraints.
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.
Any sexual activity to which the older person has not consented. This can be perusing sexually explicit print or electronic materials in front of the older person, not giving the older person privacy when they bathe or shower or sexual assault.
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.
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.
White colonisation of Australia has had a dramatic effect on Aboriginal people, resulting in more rapid ageing for Aboriginal Australians compared to white Australians. Subsequently Aboriginal Australians 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.
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 because 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 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.
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 (7 Years Data of Elder Abuse in Victorian link)
We know that around 4-6 per cent of older people experience elder abuse. Australia’s population is ageing, so 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 and socio-economic backgrounds and lifestyles.
Issues contributing to risk may include a history of family violence, isolation, dependency and disability. See What are the risk factors for elder abuse? for more information.
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.
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 Victorian Family Violence Protection Act 2008 covers partners and other family members and carers.
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’.
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 in suffering which 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 consider 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 person experiencing the abuse could lead to a better outcome for the older person.