We need to talk about: Elder abuse

Mar 05, 2021
Elder abuse isn’t something confined to aged care facilities or the back blocks of hospitals. Source: Getty

For a long time, elder abuse was something that remained hidden, out of the broader public’s consciousness. But The Royal Commission into Aged Care – including its final report released on Monday – and renewed advocacy have seen fresh awareness of the serious issue and calls to protect our most vulnerable.

But elder abuse isn’t something that’s confined to aged care facilities or the back blocks of hospitals. It isn’t something that just ‘happens to other people’. It’s here in our communities and – sadly – among our friends and family. And more often than not it’s happening within a person’s own home. Let’s delve into the details here.

What is it?

Elder abuse is the term used to describe any abuse, neglect, maltreatment or exploitation of an elderly person. While physical or sexual abuse do fall under the umbrella, so too do neglect in care and aid. Financial exploitation and assets-based manipulation or misuse are included and are quite common. And psychological and emotional abuse are vital to call out here too, with many elderly individuals suffering forms of more subtle maltreatment that are nonetheless just as damaging overall to their health and wellbeing.

The important thing to highlight here is that there’s no one size fits all when it comes to elder abuse. There’s no checklist or blood-test diagnosis, as it encompasses a range of situations or settings that leave an elderly individual harmed, neglected or taken advantage of in some form.

Who’s at risk?

Just like other forms of abuse, elder abuse doesn’t have a necessary reason or rhythm to who’s at risk. It can happen to anyone, in any setting, and comes primarily from the place of an elderly individual being mistreated due to the increased vulnerability that old age can bring.

Statistics show that elderly individuals with conditions and circumstances that give them added vulnerabilities are typically the ones who are at greatest risk. Those living alone and in isolation might be more easily targeted, and health conditions that make physical self-care more difficult place individuals at greater risk. Those suffering with conditions affecting memory (such as dementia) and mental health issues are often targets for psychological abuse or having financial and material circumstances exploited and maltreated. Those who might struggle to, or not be able to, communicate what’s happening or how they’re feeling can find it hard (or near impossible) to reach out for help.

How do we spot it?

Whether it’s for ourselves, our loved ones, or those around us, picking up when elder abuse is occurring is absolutely key. That’s not always easily done, however, so here’s some tips.

Keeping alert to not just how someone is being treated by those around them, but how an elderly loved one or contact is behaving and feeling are vital. Significant changes in someone’s mood, their anxiety and fear levels or how they’re acting can be signs that something’s not right. Occurrences such as unexplained or repeated injuries and marks can signal physical harm is happening. And any concern about hygiene conditions, clothing, nutrition or unexplained weight loss might alert someone that an elderly individual who needs help with those things is being neglected.

Picking up exploitation and misuse of finances, health fraud or assets can be tricky. But sudden and significant changes in plans, wills, finances, prescriptions or medical claims might be a sign that an individual is acting harmfully behind the scenes.

Statistics show that caregivers who are burnt out, overwhelmed, struggling with their own mental health and/or are caring for someone with high needs are more likely to abuse (consciously or not) an elderly individual. This, of course, does not excuse the behaviour – but it’s an important flag to be aware of.

Asking is always the first step. Even if it’s only an odd feeling or hunch, asking your loved one – and even yourself – if something is going on or isn’t right is what we all need to be doing much more. Asking your parent, friend or client regularly how they’re doing, if they feel safe and how they feel their needs are being met is always, always a good idea. When in doubt, the message here is to just reach out.

What’s the best course of action?

Supporting our elderly loved ones and contacts is always step number one, and ensuring someone is safe and out of immediate danger is vital. If in any doubt as to someone’s immediate risk and safety, contact emergency services without delay.

Whether it’s an elderly person themselves who’s concerned, or a family member/friend, general advice is to avoid overt confrontation with an abuser, as this can (in some cases) risk making things worse. Report any concerns and observations to management if things are occurring in care, and – regardless of where and when – opening up to other family members, friends or supports is vital.

Supporting carers and family members who might be burnt out and struggling is important, so check in regularly and see how you can help. The safety and wellbeing of the elderly individual is always top of the priorities here, however, so that consideration must come first.

Further advice and information can be found through places such as ElderHelp on 1800 353 374. Phoning them (from any state in Australia) can also connect an elderly person or their family with the appropriate advice and referral agency for elder abuse in their state.

When in doubt, reach out. With awareness and action, assistance to keep older people safe and well cared for is always within reach.

Have you encountered any instances of elder abuse? If so, how was it identified and handled?

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