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Understanding Elder Abuse

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By Rebecca Tetlow

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members”.

This statement is troubling when we pause to consider the impact of elder abuse in modern Australian society. As its name may suggest, elder abuse refers to any kind of act, occurring within a trusting relationship, that results in harm to an elder person.

Elder abuse is an issue that is only just starting to catch the collective attention of policymakers and the media, but early research into this topic reveals some worrying statistics.  The Australian Institute for Family Studies recently released a report on Elder Abuse: Understanding the issues, framework and responses.

Some of the key findings in the report include:

  1. A lot of elder abuse goes unreported so the prevalence of elder abuse in Australia is not certain. From the available evidence, it is likely that between 2% and 10% of older Australians experience abuse in any given year.
  2. In general, older persons are more vulnerable to abuse due to the prevalence of dementia and other cognitive impairments and due to the risk of social isolation as previous support networks weaken.
  3. Financial abuse seems to be the most common form of abuse that is experienced by elderly people. But sadly, other forms of abuse including psychological abuse (such as threatening to withdraw care or prohibiting contact with other family members), physical abuse and neglect are occurring all too frequently in Australia.
  4. The perpetrators of abuse are often family members, most commonly a child of the elderly person.
  5. The incidence of elder abuse will increase as the Baby Boomer generation ages and life expectancy increases, resulting in a greater proportion of our society will be elderly.

The Attorney-General has asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to look into what better legal protections and framework can be put in place to protect older people from abuse. However, this is a complex issue that will require a multi-faceted response as well as social change. So what can be done in the meantime?

  1. If you are the victim of elder abuse, or you suspect someone you know may be the victim of elder abuse, please reach out for support. In the ACT, contact the Older Persons Abuse Prevention Referral and Information Line (APRIL) on (02) 6205 3535.
  2. Have a plan in place about who will make decisions for you and help manage your finances if you lose capacity at some point in the future. Getting good legal advice about making an Enduring Power of Attorney will help to ensure that the right people are named as attorneys with appropriate safeguards in place.
  3. If you have made an Enduring Power of Attorney, make sure your attorneys know what their duties and responsibilities are. If you have been named as an attorney, take steps to ensure you know what you can and can’t do when using an Enduring Power of Attorney.
  4. As a community, let’s start talking about elder abuse in a way that affirms the valued place of older members of our society and respects and protects their rights.

DDCS has lawyers who specialise in elder law and can provide practical and sensitive legal advice to older clients. 

Rebecca Tetlow is a Senior Associate at DDCS Lawyers, a Canberra based law firm specialising in all aspects of Family Law, Wills, Estates and Business Succession. We pride ourselves as being advocates for a range of social issues and are committed to encouraging the legal profession to be more than just lawyers. If you need legal assistance, please contact the DDCS team on (02) 6212 7600 or at mail@ddcs.dev.hostify.com.au.

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