‘Shocking’ rates of sexual abuse of aged care residents in Australia is a ‘source of national shame’

Jun 06, 2022
Elderly rights groups are demanding urgent change. Source: Getty


Over the past two decades, sexual abuse of vulnerable aged care residents has been the least understood and acknowledged area of elder mistreatment in Australia.

Now, the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety reports found that in the first three months of 2021, there have been over 500 cases of unlawful sexual contact with older residents in aged care facilities in Australia.

Their report also states that about 2,520 sexual assaults had happened in residential nursing homes in 2018-2019, with an estimated 50 sexual assaults occurring each week, describing the situation as a “disgrace” and “national shame”.

Evidence also found a disturbing lack of follow-up by the Australian government department that receives these reports, adding that “unlawful sexual conduct” has been a prevalent concern and is believed to affect 13-18 per cent of aged care residents.

While the government set up the serious incident reporting scheme to urge providers to report the number of physical and sexual assaults occurring in residential care, Older Persons Advocacy Network chief executive Craig Gear says “the sector has seen little improvement since the aged care royal commission handed down its findings more than 12 months ago.”

Speaking to the Guardian, Dr Catherine Barrett, founder of the Older People and Sexual Rights Institute, stresses the need for action to occur in this area.

“The numbers are shocking. One person is shocking. It has to change, it just has to change, because it’s not keeping with community standards,” she said.

Back in 2021, Dr Barrett had compiled anecdotes of sexual violence experienced by elderly care residents for submission to the Royal Commission.

One account found a 90-year-old woman was taken to hospital for “confusion” after she reported she had been raped, an aged care worker had described her case as an older woman with “non-ambulant, mentally incoherent and non-verbal due to advanced dementia”.

But the elderly resident’s medical examination found “occipital fractures of both hips … which was consistent with someone coming and lying on top of her.” The abuse was only discovered when another staff member noticed vaginal abrasions.

“We’ve got people who have difficulty communicating that they’ve been sexually assaulted – and that’s the reason they get targeted – so they can’t articulate the devastation to them,” Dr Barrett said. “But that does not mean it’s not there.”

In 2019, a study found that 58 per cent of aged care staff believed that sexual assault had “no impact” on elderly victims, believing that those suffering from dementia will not be distressed since they would have no memory of the assault.

“We need to provide aged care service providers the education to understand the devastating impacts of sexual assault and the tools to better identify the risks and support older people who are sexually assaulted,” explains Dr Barrett.

“By working with leaders in residential aged care service providers and supporting leaders of change, we can begin to create safer avenues for older people and their families to report sexual assault and to improve the way those reports are addressed.”

DISCLAIMER: If you are concerned about violence or misconduct impacting you, your family, friends or workplace, the numbers below may help. National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service — 1800 737 732, Mensline Australia — 1300 789 978, Relationships Australia — 1300 364 277, BeyondBlue — 1300 224 636; Suicide Call Back Service — 1300 659 467; Headspace — 1800 650 890; Kids Helpline — 1800 551 800; Lifeline Australia — 13 11 14 for confidential support, advice and referral that will help you explore your options.

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