Elder abuse is the broad term for abuse of an elder (older person) and can take the form of:

  • Physical abuse, including sexual abuse and assault including force, the inappropriate use of drugs and the unnecessary use of and restraints or confinement;
  • Emotional abuse including yelling, threats, intimidation, ridicule or blaming the older person. Emotional abuse also encompasses omissions such as ignoring the person or isolating them from family, friends or activities; and
  • Financial abuse, which includes using an older person’s funds for personal gain and stealing cash or property from the older person.

Who commits Elder Abuse?

In many cases, the caregiver or family members of the older person commit elder abuse.

However, medical professionals and other caregivers, such as staff from nursing homes or aged care facilities can also become perpetrators in elder abuse.

What are the signs of Elder Abuse?

At first the signs may not be clearly evident, particularly if the older person is at risk of falling over, is frail or has a condition such as dementia.

If it is the caregiver carrying out the abuse, sometimes the caregiver may also try to cover up or explain away any areas that may give rise to concern that elder abuse is present. Most incidents of elder abuse occur behind closed doors, and the victim is often unable to speak up for themselves. As such, it is important for friends, family members and caregivers to be vigilant and watch out for the signs elder abuse may be happening.

Some signs that may indicate the presence of elder abuse include (but are not limited to):

  • Quarreling and regular disagreement between the older person and their caregiver;
  • unexplained signs of injury on the older person, including bruising and broken bones;
  • apparent “accidental” drug overdose by the older person;
  • refusal by the caregiver to let the older person visit with other people alone;
  • witnessing the caregiver belittle or control the more elderly person;
  • changes in behaviour or personality of the older person – they may become suddenly withdrawn or nervous;
  • changes in the physical state of the elderly person (such as weight loss or malnutrition),
  • unsanitary living conditions;
  • lack of personal hygiene; and
  • suspicious changes to the older person’s bank account or sudden changes of the Will, Enduring Power of Attorney and/ or Appointment of Enduring Guardian.

Risk Factors

Many caregivers are not professional carers. While it is often admirable that they have agreed to take care of a spouse, friend, family member or parent, as the older person’s condition deteriorates, the task of caring becomes harder to manage.

This set of circumstances can make the caregiver frustrated and, in some cases, liable to lash out if the caregiving role becomes too much for them.

Among caregivers, significant risk factors for elder abuse are:

  • stress and inability to cope with change and stressful situations;
  • depression;
  • lack of support from other potential caregivers;
  • lack of money if the caregiver is relying on a carer’s pension; and
  • the perception by a caregiver that the care of the older person is burdensome and does not offer the caregiver any reward. 

Is there any legislation in place to help protect older people from Elder Abuse in Australia?

At present, there is no specific legislation in Australia, which protects elder abuse in the privacy of an older person’s home.

However, note the following assistance is available:

  • In the case of a crime against the person (assault) or property – the various state and territory Crimes Acts will apply, and the older person may have access to an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order. If this is the case, intervention should be sought from the Police or other relevant law enforcement agency;
  • In the case of financial or other abuse, organisations such as the Public Guardian and the Office of the Protective Commissioner in New South Wales can also assist. Other states have various equivalent agencies;
  • In the case of older people in an Aged Care facility, section 63.1AA of the Aged Care Act 1997 (Cth) (Act) requires an Approved Provider to report an alleged (or reportable) assault;
  • Each state and territory have elder law advocacy groups who may also be able to assist.

Strategies to guard against Elder Abuse – how Can an older person protect themselves?

To prevent Elder Abuse, an older person should make sure their financial and legal affairs are in order. Check that all Wills, Enduring Power of Attorney and Appointment of Enduring Guardian are updated and kept in a safe place to avoid any undue influence to change those documents by a carer. It is always a good idea to appoint at least two parties to act as a power of attorney to provide a check on each other if there is a suspicion of elder abuse.

Conclusion

Finally, an elder should speak up and ask for help if possible. If you or someone you know is in need of legal assistance, get in touch with the Elder Law specialists here at LegalVision on 1300 544 755.

Emma Heuston

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