The conversations of life

Elder abuse a new target for Government


The issue of elder abuse will come under increasing scrutiny in the coming year with the announcement this week that the Federal Government will undertake a formal inquiry.

Speaking in the opening address of 4th National Elder Abuse Conference 2016, Attorney General, Senator George Brandis said he was taking the opportunity to announce the new inquiry into laws and frameworks to safeguard older Australians from misuse and abuse.

Federal Attorney General, George Brandis
Federal Attorney General, George Brandis

Senator Brandis told the conference that abuse is a human rights issue that is complex, often invisible and under-reported.

“Older people may feel separation from the broader family unit. They may be prevented from coming forward because of disability. Professionals may be reluctant to become involved for fear of being seen as meddling in family matters,” he said.

Senator Brandis told the conference that abuse is a human rights issue that is complex, often invisible and under-reported.

Senator Brandis said the inquiry, to be conducted by the Australian Law Reform Commission, will identify best practices for protecting older Australians through the legal system, while minimising interference with their rights and preferences. It has a timeline to report to the Government in May 2017.

The announcement of the inquiry comes in response to a report, Elder abuse – Understanding issues, frameworks and responses, commissioned by the Attorney-General’s department late last year and released at the conference on the same day.

Lead author on the report, Dr Rae Kaspiew from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, told ABC radio that it was difficult to know exactly how many Australians are suffering from the various forms of elder abuse.  However, she said it seems likely that between 2 and 10 per cent of older Australians may affected.

The unknown size of the problem
Understanding the prevalence and extent of elder abuse is a concern for other commentators too, including policy and advocacy organisation for older people, COTA Australia.

COTA’s Chief Executive, Ian Yates, has welcomed the inquiry but said a national, coordinated elder abuse strategy was needed.

COTA has also joined the calls by “almost all practitioners in this field” for a national prevalence study as a first step in better quantifying the extent of abuse being suffered by older people.

He said it was difficult to know the full extent of the issue of elder abuse as so much of it happens behind closed doors, but there has been growing evidence for some years now that it needs urgent attention, and “we can be certain that the incidence of abuse is greater than we currently know about.”

“Elder abuse can take many forms,” said Mr Yates, “including financial, physical, emotional and sexual. It can happen in the home or in a formal care situation. It can be an act of violence, threats or simple neglect, and it is often theft.

“Sadly many older people are vulnerable to abuse as their situation can make it hard to speak out about it.”

He said elder abuse can particularly go unchecked as people become more frail, suffer associated mental health issues and are isolated from the broader community.

“It can have lasting debilitating effects on the health and wellbeing of older people, some who never fully recover,” Mr Yates said.

A growing problem
Pointing to the ageing of the population, Mr Yates said it was imperative that we understand the issues now and have strategies in place to protect the growing numbers of older people.

“There will be no single answer. A multi-pronged and coordinated approach needs to be prioritized by all levels of government, caregivers and communities to ensure vulnerable older people are safe and valued,” he said.

Expect a lot more on this topic in the coming months.

The official UN World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) is 15 June 2016. 

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