Landmark study finds one in six older Australians suffering elder abuse

By Caitlin Fitzsimmons  for The Age, December 26, 2021

The $2 million National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) was commissioned by the Attorney-General’s department to provide the first definitive figures on the prevalence of elder abuse.

The final report was handed to the federal government in April but released just few days before Christmas. It found 14.8 per cent of older Australians had experienced elder abuse of some kind, including psychological, physical, financial and sexual abuse, and neglect.

The most common was psychological abuse, followed by neglect, financial abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse.

The most common was psychological abuse, followed by neglect, financial abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse.CREDIT:ISTOCK

It was usually at the hands of their adult children, with the exception of sexual abuse. Meanwhile, 17.4 per cent of younger Australians said they had concerns about elder abuse regarding someone they knew.

Elder Abuse Action Australia executive officer Bev Lange said most people in the sector had estimated about 10 per cent of older Australians suffered abuse. “It’s fair to say this is well in advance of [higher than] what we were expecting,” Ms Lange said.

The report included a survey of 7000 Australians over the age of 65 about their experiences in the previous 12 months, as well as a separate survey of 3400 Australians aged 18 to 64.

The most common form of elder abuse was psychological abuse, experienced by 11.7 per cent of older people. AIFS deputy director of research Rae Kaspiew said this was not always recognised by victims or perpetrators, so it was measured through questions about whether the person had been insulted, excluded, repeatedly ignored, undermined, belittled, or threatened including threats to harm someone else.

“People tend to emphasise things like financial abuse and physical abuse, while psychological abuse-type behaviours are not recognised,” Dr Kaspiew said.

Council on the Ageing chief executive Ian Yates said this resulted from people being “unconsciously ageist”. “Many people treat the elderly and older relatives effectively as children and that can be pretty abusive if you’re at the end of it,” Mr Yates said.

The next most common type of abuse was neglect, suffered by 2.9 per cent of older people, followed by financial abuse at 2.1 per cent, physical abuse at 1.8 per cent and sexual abuse at 1 per cent.

Dr Kaspiew said the true rate of elder abuse could be even higher because the survey only included people living in the community with capacity to consent, excluding people living in aged care or suffering cognitive decline.

“It’s long past time this government stopped calling endless inquiries into this problem, and actually started doing something to tackle elder abuse.”  Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus

A spokesman for Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said the government was “committed to building the evidence base on the nature and prevention of elder abuse” and had “taken the opportunity to carefully consider the report’s detailed findings”

As part of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2021-2022 released on December 16, the government announced more than $44 million in additional funding to build on the National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians.

The overall rates are broadly in line with global figures suggesting 15.7 per cent of older people suffer elder abuse, but higher than previous estimates in Australia. In 2016, the AIFS published a report saying elder abuse could be 2-5 per cent based on other local estimates, though it said the evidence for this claim was weak.

“Having this clear data gives us very good guidance for what types of services are required in the future, a better understanding of perpetrators and a lot more information in relation to people not reporting abuse,” Ms Lange said.

The report found men and women had a roughly equal chance of being the victims of elder abuse, but men were more likely to be the perpetrators by a margin of 10 percentage points. Only a third of victims had sought help to deal with the abuse.

Being married or in a long-term relationship or owning a home without a mortgage provided some protection from elder abuse.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said the study was long overdue and came after inaction following the comprehensive report on elder abuse from the Australian Law Reform Commission four years ago.

“How can Australians trust anything Mr Morrison says after delaying this critical report for almost a year and then sneaking it out on Christmas Eve hoping that no one will notice,” Mr Dreyfus said.

“It’s long past time this government stopped calling endless inquiries into this problem, and actually started doing something to tackle elder abuse.”

Mr Dreyfus said Labor would build on leader Anthony Albanese’s positive ageing strategy released last year to develop a serious strategy to tackle elder abuse.

However, Mr Yates said action was happening behind the scenes on the Law Reform Commission report. He welcomed the fact Senator Cash had pushed hard to try to get a commitment from the states to align their powers of attorney legislation.

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