Although a University of Western Australia study reports that one in 20 people in the state suffers elder abuse, the problem is still not widely recognised.
Advocare Service Delivery Manager Deborah Costello said although cases of elder abuse jumped from fewer than 900 in 2014-2015 to more than 2100 cases the next year, the issue still slips under the radar.
“I would say it is a bigger problem than people think,” said Ms Costello whose not-for-profit organisation fights for rights of older people and people with disabilities.
“I don’t know if this rise was due to more people reporting cases, or if there is an increase in cases, but it is still more common for people who suffer from elder abuse to not report it.
“This can come down to these individuals feeling a loss of pride in not being able to protect themselves, or simply not knowing where to go to find help, but what is worst of all is most of the forms of abuse are under-reported because most of the time the abuse is carried out by family members.”
Ms Costello said due to this, elderly people don’t want to address the problem for fear of being neglected by their own family.
“It makes it difficult for people who report it to police or authorities that might be able to step in and help,” she said.
“They’re worried about family relationships breaking down in filing those reports, so it is often one of those things where people suffer in silence for a long time.”
Ms Costello said financial exploitation was by far the most recurrent form.
“It’s a very complex issue, but financial is the most commonly reported type of abuse and takes many forms,” she said.
“It can range from someone taking a few hundred dollars, to forcing someone to sign over their full estate, but this all depends on the situation and the person’s motivations.
“This not only effects the individual financially as they essentially have no money, but it can have detrimental effects on them psychologically as well.”
Helpline Advisor for the National Dementia Helpline, Sharie Jackson, said this feeling of exploitation and isolation could lead to mental health issues and even problems like dementia.
“When people get older they tend to start feeling a greater sense of isolation, and from having feelings of being forgotten or even unwanted, mental health problems like depression can occur,” Ms Jackson said.
“It is also shown that people who have suffered from depression are at a higher risk of developing dementia.”
Ms Costello said that action was being taken.
“We have an elder abuse protocol in WA, which is there to help age care agencies and other health providers to respond in an appropriate way if they suspect elder abuse might be happening,” she said.
“We go out and train age care workers and even elderly people themselves to know what signs to look for which is pointing to abuse, and how to seek help themselves or someone they know is experiencing elder abuse”.
President of the Older Women’s Network, Sue Joslin, said her association was there to help people as they transitioned into their elderly years.
“The network provides a service for older women which are possibly feeling a loss of belonging or are struggling with things such as mental issues and helps them realise there are other people out there like them who are wanting to help,” Ms Joslin said.
Secretary-Treasurer for the Older Women’s Network, Julienne Thomas, said elder abuse rarely came up in conversation during their meetings.
“We don’t really talk about issues like that at the association,” she said.
“I don’t know of anyone at the network who is struggling with problems like elder abuse, but we don’t bring up those issues amongst the group anyway.
“We are there for everyone, and our members know when something is wrong we are willing to help them with that problem, but abuse isn’t something discussed as we want the atmosphere to be light, warm and inviting so our members are always wearing a smile.”
Ms Costello said elder abuse, as a topic of discussion, is where child abuse or family domestic violence was 20 years ago.
“They were seen as issues which people didn’t want to talk about and society didn’t want to acknowledge was really happening, and I think we are at that point of acknowledgement again with elder abuse,” she said.
“If you were to ask someone now whether they thought child abuse happens, they would say ‘yes’, but if you were to ask whether they thought elder abuse happens, people are still shocked to learn that it does happen and older people are being treated this way.”
Ms Costello said to best deal with the elder abuse at the grassroots level, an improved national awareness program was needed.
“Although some states around Australia [Western Australia and Victoria] are realising the very real issue of elder abuse and are putting in measures to address the problem, and have received government funding, other states do not, so a greater national cohesion is vital if we are serious about finding a solution,” she said.
“People are scared of talking about elder abuse and stakeholders are discussing on changing the name to something like ‘aged care rights’ because people simply find calling it ‘elder abuse’ as too confrontational.
“But I feel it comes down to education and spreading the word of elder abuse, so with more resources and funding we will be able to better promote awareness of this issue across Australia.”
If you or someone you know is suffering elder abuse, you can call the Elder Abuse Helpline on 1300 724 679 or visit the Advocare website.
Homepage image for this story: Jorge Royan, Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons attribution-sharealike 3.0 unported licence.