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Shame and blame – the insidious surge in elder abuse


Shame and blame – the insidious surge in elder abuse

Elder abuse takes many forms and, like the attitude and response to domestic violence 20 years ago, is often ignored and put aside as a family issue. SCOTT DIXON reports on a subject that is often hidden and seldom discussed but is not going away.

To the uninitiated like Kate, it sounded a simple solution to another problem caused by uncaring bureaucrats.

The 75-year-old’s only child, her beloved Kevin, warned that her pension was under threat because the boom in house prices had meant she’d crossed the asset threshold.

He was a good lad.

“I’m going to get it anyway so this way not only do you keep your pension but we dodge death duties. It’s a true win-win.”

A few alarm bells should have rung – death duties were abolished in 1979 and family homes are exempt from pension means tests – but Kate’s recently deceased husband took care of all that stuff and Kevvie was just taking his place, looking out for his old mum.

Sadly, the ending was as predictable as it was preventable.

Financial exploitation is just one of the many forms of elder abuse rising to alarming levels in Australia.

The Australian Institute for Family Studies’ latest research found a staggering one in six older Australians suffer a form of abuse – psychological, neglect, financial, physical and sexual.

This compares with one in five Britons and half that rate in the United States where everyone right up to President Joe Biden suspects it is under-reported.

Most vulnerable are women, people who live alone and those with poor financial literacy or reduced physical or mental capacity.

People who are dependent on others or have a history of family and relationship issues also are at risk.

Perpetrators are predominantly family members, mostly adult children, but can also be friends, neighbours, acquaintances, and care workers.

Perhaps the study’s most disturbing find is that almost two-thirds of victims don’t seek help.

Aged and Disability Advocacy Australia CEO Geoff Rowe was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study world’s best practice in preventing and responding to elder abuse in aged care and the community.

His prime motivation for the 2019 study was frustration that Australia’s response to elder abuse “is a bit like our response to domestic and family violence was 20 years ago”.

“If you go back 20 years, the response to family violence was we didn’t talk about it. We saw it more as a family issue,” he said. “Police were reluctant to get involved because it is family.”

Rowe said misplaced shame also was to blame for keeping abuse behind closed doors.

“With domestic and family violence you can think, ‘I made the wrong choice because of the partner I picked’. With elder abuse it’s often your son or your daughter,” he said.

“There’s a huge amount of, ‘it must be my fault, I didn’t bring them up properly’. There’s a lot more shame involved and that feeds the reluctance to speak out. Also, more broadly, people feel like they’re alone.”

While elder abuse is fuelled by myriad causes including financial pressure, ageism is at its core.

“It’s the impact of ageism. Older people aren’t particularly valued, certainly in western society,” he said.

“To some extent government supports that ageism because they talk about the burden of age care or the burden of the pension. A lot of the references to older Australians are negative and that just reinforces the broader perspective.

“Older people should be respected and cared for. You don’t stop being a person when you hit 65 or 75 or get dementia. You never stop being a person.”

National Older Women’s Network president Beverly Baker said ageism and its accompanying lack of respect were translating into negative action against older people.

“We really are an ageist society and all the rhetoric about the post-war babies how they’ve stolen everything and ruined the planet … all of that is being blamed on the older generation” she said.

“It’s not just in Australia – it’s worldwide. We’re hearing stories like older women in India being left on the doorstep of temples because their families can’t look after them anymore.”

Even in Japan, a country renowned for the deference shown to older people and home to an annual Respect for the Aged Day holiday, instances of abuse are rising each year.

Three out of four victims are women, with 40 per cent reporting the abuse was at the hands of their sons. Husbands (21%) and daughters (17%) were also guilty.

Baker said a decade of decline in spending power had fed young people’s anger but rather than directing their ire at the governments responsible, older people were copping the brunt.

“(Governments) have encouraged people to be at war with their older selves,” Baker said.

“Poverty is the same irrespective of your age group and richness is the same. Let’s have a look at the real issues like the wealthy not paying enough tax while people on a minimum wage are hit with a tax bill.”

Financial frustration is one front where older people are defending themselves from the enemy within.

In what’s been dubbed “early inheritance syndrome”, younger people are rationalising financial and moral crimes against older people to fund the comparative luxury that passes for a first home.

“Their idea of a first home is very different to my idea of a first home and the furnishing we would put in it – most of it was second-hand, given to us by other people,” Rowe said.

Baker said this “inheritance impatience” could be eased if governments loosened the reins with initiatives such as encouraging co-operative housing and allowing older people to let rooms in their homes without affecting their pensions.

She said children often looked on their parents as having more money than they needed.

“They know they are going to get the money but they’re not prepared to wait,” Baker said. “We need to say, ‘You’re young. You have a capacity to change your life, to make your fortune. You’ve got all those chances in front of you. I don’t – I’ve got as much money as I’m ever going to have. The only asset I have is my home and I don’t know how long I’m going to live.”

She said younger people need to learn the reality of retirement.

“It’s all the money they’ve got – if they seem conservative with their money, leave them alone,” Baker said.

“If you love them, leave them alone. Don’t undermine their security. Don’t take away their asset. And if they are able to help you, don’t ask them to give you the lot.”

Rowe said mechanisms such as Enduring Power of Attorney (EPOA), meant to protect older people, were being used to strip their resources.

“The intent of an EPOA is to support the person to make the decisions they would normally make. We often see people when they take on the attorney role think they’ve got free rein to determine how the older person’s assets should be used,” he said.

“We in the industry get incredibly frustrated being told, ‘I’m Mum’s attorney. She’s not to have this and she’s not to go out’ and the aged care provider says yes rather than saying, ‘That’s not your role’.

“If your mum and dad have gone down to the RSL every Friday night for the past 25 years and put 50 or 100 bucks through the pokies because that’s what they liked to do, for you as attorney to say they shouldn’t isn’t actually your role.”

Older people also are being denied Covid vaccinations by anti-vaxxer attorneys.

“It’s not about what you believe ¬– it is what the elder person would have done,” Rowe said.

“The role of attorney is supported decision-making. With dementia there is a line where people can’t make decisions so the attorney’s role is to determine where possible what decision they would have made.”

He said education, such as the instructional video on the ADA Australia website ( could help prevent poor decisions.

“Not all of it occurs with malice or ill-intent. If you don’t understand your role as an attorney and you make it up in the absence of knowledge, chances are you will get it wrong,” Rowe said.

Bodies such as the Australian Banking Association and its chief executive Anna Bligh have demanded a stronger national approach to the financial abuse of older Australians.

“Specifically, we are urging governments to implement the 2017 Australian Law Reform Commission recommendations from the inquiry into elder abuse, across three key areas,” Bligh said.

“Firstly, to agree to nationally consistent laws governing EPOA, including financial, medical, and personal instruments. Secondly, to establish a national register of power of attorney instruments. Thirdly, to designate a body to receive and investigate reports on suspected cases of abuse in each state and territory jurisdiction.

“After five years of inaction, better protection of older Australians is well overdue. While some states have systems in place, there is no uniform approach to reporting suspected financial abuse and the abuse is not investigated or acted upon.”

Rowe and Baker say education and engaging younger people are key. Both believe it’s essential to break down the ignorance in the role previous generations played in establishing today’s social structure and infrastructure.

“There is movement,” Baker said. “You tell young people your history and they say, ‘I didn’t know that’. That’s an important conversation we need to have.”

She recalled talking to a young woman who was bemoaning how feminists had “ruined everything” because “I can’t even get a guy to open the door for me now”.

The woman, a homeowner, was incredulous to learn that not so long ago, a single woman needed their father to guarantee a loan for a house, which was then owned by him.

“I told her, ‘Feminists have ensured that you are able to own your own home in your own right. The bloke may not open the door but you own the bloody door.”

Covid lockdowns helped push elder abuse into the shadows, cutting off interaction that led to it being picked up. It’s a problem that’s not going away.

“Certainly over Covid we have seen financial abuse increase and that’s been around people not being able to work,” Rowe said.

“I wonder if, looking forward, with interest rates going up we’ll also continue to see that sort of increase as people come under rising pressure.”


What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse can take many forms. Some of the most common are:

Physical: Examples include rough handling through to assaults such as shoving, slapping, biting or kicking. In extreme cases the abuse can include restraining with ropes or belts and locking older people away in a room.

Using chemical restraints like drugs and alcohol is another form of abuse. Sexual abuse can be present in extreme cases.

Tell-tale signs include pain and restricted movement, particularly unexplained accidents and conflicting accounts about how the person suffered injuries including bruises, bite marks, cuts, burns and scratches. Fear or anxiety towards someone can be a telling sign.

Psychological: Name-calling, bullying, belittling and refusing access to other people, particularly grandchildren. Cutting off older people from contact with other family members and their friends is elder abuse, as is withholding mail, preventing phone calls and stopping people from practising their religion.

Victims may be depressed, confused and exhibit signs of loneliness and helplessness.

Financial: The examples are numerous and can be as obvious as using bank or credit cards without permission and basic theft. But common forms also include forcing or tricking an older person into signing paperwork for loans, altering wills, signing over property, or conceding powers of attorney.

Moving in with an older person without consent and then ignoring household costs is also common. The golden rule is to be wary and question everything.

Watch out for missing belongings, unexplained withdrawals and the older person suddenly not having enough for basics such as food.

Neglect: It’s important to be in regular contact to check if an older person is getting the care they need such as comfortable accommodation, enough food and medical care.

Signs of neglect include weight loss, an unclean or unsafe home, health problems going unmedicated, and developing conditions such as dehydration or bed sores.

Who to call

If you or someone you know is a victim, tell somebody be they family, friends, your GP or the police. Or call one of the following numbers.

1800 700 600 – Older Persons Advocacy Network

1800 Elder Help (1800 353 374) – Federal Government national helpline

1300 651 192 – Queensland Government helpline

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