Spotting the signs of elder abuse and how to get help

Jun 15, 2023
Elder abuse takes many forms, extending beyond what is commonly known. Source: Getty

In Australia, a distressing reality persists: a staggering number of older individuals, approximately 185,000 each year, find themselves subjected to various forms of abuse and neglect.

The national prevalence of elder abuse stands at 14.8 per cent, indicating that one in every six seniors endures mistreatment in the form of psychological, physical, financial, sexual abuse, or neglect.

Troublingly, the most prevalent form of elder abuse reported is psychological abuse, affecting 11.7 per cent of older individuals.

These alarming statistics stem from a comprehensive survey conducted among 7,000 Australians aged 65 and above, with an additional survey encompassing 3,400 individuals between the ages of 18 and 64.

It is high time we address this pressing issue and take a stand against the mistreatment of our elderly population. By shedding light on the types of abuse faced by older individuals and understanding the measures to prevent them, we can forge a society where every senior can age with dignity, respect, and safety.

What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is a multifaceted problem that often arises from individuals who are trusted by older people, such as family members, friends, professionals, or paid caregivers. It can occur in various settings, including the older person’s own home.

What makes it even more complicated is that sometimes both the victim and the abuser fail to recognise the abusive nature of their interactions.

According to the World Health Organisation, elder abuse is “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person.”

While elder abuse can be physical, it can also take on other forms like emotional, sexual, financial or simply reflect intentional or unintentional neglect.

Recognising elder abuse

Elder Neglect and Self-neglect

We often see elderly neglect when a family member or caregiver fails to protect an older person from harm – causing them serious illness or injuries.  Neglect, whether it be in a home setting or in aged care facilities usually shows an intentional lack of regard for an older person’s needs – both physical and mental. You see it in people through signs of: 

  • Malnutrition or dehydration, or even a lack of food in the home or facility they live in
  • A lack of medical help
  • Poor hygiene and unclean or unsanitary living conditions
  • Untreated health issues, infections and injuries to their body like bedsores.  

Unfortunately, neglect is something that the Royal Commission into Aged Care is striving to overcome and there is a particularly high risk in aged care facilities that are understaffed.  

Self-neglect occurs when an elderly person is unable to meet their basic daily needs and suffers as a result. Look out for the signs which are commonly seen as: 

  • An inability to eat or drink without assistance
  • Unable to dress or maintain basic personal hygiene
  • Cannot maintain their home in a clean and safe state
  • Can no longer manage their financial affairs
  • Unable to independently seek medical assistance and healthcare for health issues of any kind. 

Elder Financial Abuse

Elder financial abuse refers to the illegal, unauthorised, or improper use of an older individual’s resources. Aged care staff, family members, or even strangers can be perpetrators of elder financial abuse.

Common warning signs of elder financial abuse include:

  • Repeated instances of missing belongings or property
  • Lack of knowledge or understanding of their own financial situation by the elderly person
  • Bank statements being directed to someone other than the elderly person
  • Changes made to an older person’s power of attorney or bank accounts without their consent
  • Receipt of eviction notices
  • Evidence of unpaid bills
  • Unusual interest shown by someone regarding the elder’s spending habits
  • Withdrawals from the elder’s accounts that they could not have made
  • Changes to the names on bank accounts, properties or other assets – most particularly, the adding of a signatory, getting access to online logins 
  • Changes to wills, power of attorney or other legal documents without advice from long-term advisers

According to 2020 findings from the Survey of Older People, approximately 2 per cent of community-dwelling individuals aged 65 and older reported experiencing financial abuse within the 12 months prior to the survey.

If you suspect elder abuse, it is important to take appropriate action:

  • In an emergency, call 000: If you believe that an older adult is in immediate danger, contact the police or emergency services.
  • Check-in with your loved one: Encourage open communication and gently prompt them to share any concerns or experiences of abuse.
  • Maintain regular contact: Socially isolated elders are at a higher risk of abuse, so staying in touch can provide support and help identify potential issues.
  • Take accusations seriously: It is crucial to believe and validate the experiences shared by older adults regarding abuse. Ensure that they receive the necessary help and support.
  • Report to appropriate authorities to report cases of abuse or neglect. There are also organisations that can investigate the situation and take appropriate actions to protect the older adult.

Elder Emotional and Psychological Abuse

Elder emotional and psychological abuse can be particularly traumatising for both the older person and their loved ones when they realise it has been occurring.

It takes many forms, but most commonly includes older people being called names, being distressed with threats and even being cut off from their loved ones or those who would put an end to the trauma if they saw evidence of it. 

Common signs to look for when someone is being abused emotionally are:  

  • They appear withdrawn, sad or frightened
  • They avoid people they know as if to be able to hide the abuse
  • They develop low self-confidence and constantly seek reassurance
  • They have sudden changes to their moods and potentially their behaviour. 

Elder Physical and Sexual Abuse

Physical elder abuse involves the deliberate use of force against an elderly person, which can include actions like hitting, shoving, kicking, or physically restraining them.

Indicators of physical elder abuse include:

  • Cuts or scrapes
  • Broken bones
  • Bruises
  • Burns
  • Dislocated joints
  • Head injuries
  • Sprains

In addition to the visible injuries, there are other signs that may suggest an older person has been subjected to physical abuse:

  • A recurring pattern of hospitalization due to the same or similar injuries
  • Delayed medical care for injuries
  • Unsatisfactory explanations provided by caregivers regarding the elder’s injuries
  • Visits to different emergency rooms (potentially to avoid raising suspicion)

Elder sexual abuse refers to any form of sexual contact with an older adult that is forced or non-consensual. This includes instances of sexual interactions involving elders who have conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other cognitive disabilities that render them unable to provide consent.

Signs of elder sexual abuse include: 

  • Bleeding or pain from genital areas or anus
  • Bruising of inner thighs
  • New occurrence of STDs

Taking action

A lot of us think we’d recognise elder abuse if a family member was being affected.  But would you be strong enough to call it out in your own family or community and take a stand?   

If you believe that someone is in immediate danger due to elder abuse, it is important to contact emergency services by calling 000.

You can also get help from the following outside resources:

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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