Close up of an older woman's hands using a mobile phone.

Understanding the impact of COVID on older Victorians

Victoria had Australia’s longest COVID-19 lockdown last year and maintaining contact with older people was a priority for COTA Victoria and Seniors Rights Victoria during this time.

To better understand how the pandemic and lockdown may have affected elder abuse, Seniors Rights Victoria compared the calls its helpline received in 2020, with those received the year before.

In 2020, there were significant increases in calls about psychological abuse (748, up 32%); physical abuse (184, up 40%); and social abuse (170, up 21%). This correlates with data collected by the Crime Statistics Agency which showed an increase in elder abuse incidents attended by Victoria Police and Ambulance Victoria.

There were fewer calls about financial abuse (703, down 32%) and guardianship and administration matters (263, down 49%) than the previous year. It was notable that while there were fewer calls during the lockdown periods, there were sharp increases when restrictions were lifted. SRV staff suspect this was because people were unable to seek help during the lockdowns if they lived with the perpetrator, and also that people were unwilling to address financial abuse concerns when the perpetrator (often a family member) may have been experiencing economic hardship from the pandemic.

The issues Seniors Rights Victoria assists with are usually related to long-term elder abuse and family conflict. It is expected that the impact of the pandemic on this type of elder abuse may not be seen for some time.

Prior to 2020, it was reported by older people that 36% of perpetrators of elder abuse had a drug, alcohol or gambling issue; 39% mental issues; and 27% financial difficulties. Research also showed 36% of people experiencing elder abuse lived with the perpetrator.

If there is an increase in any of the above factors due to the pandemic (job loss, increased mental health issues, increased alcohol consumption, financial stress, housing stress) there may be an associated increase in elder abuse.

Some of the specific issues raised by callers to Seniors Rights Victoria throughout the pandemic were about potential problems. These included family members who had returned to live with aged parents (some having returned from overseas) because they had no job or income, and would not contribute to household income.

For some callers, the challenges of supporting family members with mental health issues were exacerbated by anxiety about the pandemic and the isolation of lockdowns. There were also calls about adult children returning to older parent homes, using drugs and being abusive.

A survey last year by the Australian Institute of Family Studies revealed the pandemic was encouraging jobless adult children to move back in with parents, increasing concerns about the risk of elder abuse. The Life During COVID-19 survey spoke to more than 7000 people from around Australia. Many of the under 30s surveyed said they had moved back with their parents. Almost a quarter of those aged 50 to 59 the Institute spoke to said their children had moved back in.