Community groups and elder abuse experts have urged the federal government to establish an elder abuse national strategy to combat the rise in elder abuse cases. Demand for legal aid for elder abuse cases has exceeded the expectations of the ACT’s Legal Aid office, an annual report has revealed.
For Legal Aid, a public funding service for socially or economically disadvantaged Canberrans, “the matters coming to us are usually urgent, often involving guardianship applications,” its report says.
Australian Law Reform Commission Calls For Elder Abuse National Strategy
In 2016, the Australian Law Reform Commission announced it would investigate the extent of the problem and possible responses. The wide-ranging document explored how best to protect older Australians from emotional, financial and physical abuse, calling for an elder abuse national strategy and prevalence study to address the issue. In a discussion paper released in December, the commission called for a national register of people holding power of attorney, to prevent children stealing from their elderly parents. Another was to allow state and territory tribunals to order enduring guardians and attorneys to pay compensation where a breach of their obligations has resulted in a loss to the person they represent.
In its submission to the ALRC inquiry, Legal Aid ACT pushed for an expansion of the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal’s powers to allow the body to award compensation and impose penalties and sanctions.
Legal Aid ACT used confronting case studies to support its case for change. One story involved Alex, the attorney of her mother Beverley.
Beverley’s advanced health directive dictated she was not to be resuscitated. When Beverley became dehydrated, suffered heat stroke and fainted on a hot summer’s day, Alex refused to seek medical assistance. Beverley’s son Mark sought urgent legal advice and felt comfortable calling an ambulance.
In another case, Mona, an elderly woman who could not read or speak English, was kicked out of her son Hugh’s home after a fight with her daughter-in-law. Hugh refused to provide his mother with her medication, important documents or bank account details and was later found to be withdrawing money from her bank account for his own use. Mona would not pursue legal proceedings against her son due to the shame and stigma she felt at the relationship breakdown.
Elder Abuse National Strategy Required For Surging Rates of Abuse & Neglect
Meanwhile, despite the 2015 parliamentary inquiry into elder abuse, New South Wales social workers say elder abuse is the hidden scourge of domestic violence and demanded more resources. Calls to a NSW hotline set up to help elders being abused have surged 30 per cent in the past year.
The line receives nearly 200 calls a month.
Fifty-seven per cent of calls are over psychological abuse, followed by financial abuse at 46 per cent. Neglect accounts for one in four calls, with physical abuse accounting for 17 per cent.
The inquiry heard cases where a daughter drained her mother’s bank account of $300,000 via her enduring power of attorney.
About 70 per cent of the state’s wealth is held by seniors, making them a prime target, the inquiry heard.
Seniors advocate Susan Ryan said there was an “assumption” by some greedy kin that they were “entitled to your mother’s house decades before she dies”.
And Seniors Rights Service solicitor Melissa Chaperlin said granny flats were an increasing problem, where “an older person makes a significant contribution to a child’s property to reside there on the understanding they will be able to do so for their life.”
She added that the older relative was not on the legal title and could be left without recourse if thrown out.
According to a NSW nurses’ group, about two-thirds of members who responded to a survey raised elder abuse as a “significant issue” in the state’s aged care system.
The Council on the Ageing (COTA) is calling for a community education campaign “to promote understanding” and steps to ensure older people are not isolated as part of the elder abuse national strategy.
COTA says isolation is “the great enabler of abuse” and estimates that as many as 20,000 people over 65 are financially or physically abused by a relative or carer.
The Australian Association of Gerontology (AAG) told the inquiry that more funding for research was needed as there were significant gaps in knowledge of elder abuse, the risk factors and how best to respond to it.
“In the absence of clear definitions and improved data collection, comparing the results of different studies, measurement of trends over time or across jurisdictions is impossible,” the AAG warned in its submission.
Research indicated that financial and psychological abuse were the most prevalent forms, which was also the experience of frontline agencies providing support to seniors. The variety and complexity of elder abuse meant that strategies had to be tailored to the particular circumstances of the victims and their family context, the AAG said.
Elder abuse expert Professor Sue Kurrle told the inquiry that the true prevalence of elder abuse in Australia was unknown.
“It is important for the future that we are more aware of how often elder abuse occurs in the older population generally, what forms it takes, in whom it occurs, and what actions are taken to address it,” said Professor Kurrle, Curran Chair in Health Care of Older People at the University of Sydney.
What the research was clear on was that most perpetrators of elder abuse were relatives of the older person, Aged & Community Services NSW & ACT told the inquiry in its submission.
And with the move to more control for seniors within community aged care, “an unintended consequence may offer increased opportunity for family members, acting as the person’s representative, to exclude service providers from oversight of aspects of the older person’s care, thus removing protections that previously existed,” said ACS.
Beyond targeted education and training for professionals, many groups called for a broader public awareness campaign to educate the public on elder abuse as part of the elder abuse national strategy.
ACS said that raising community awareness and tackling ageism would help create an environment that discouraged elder abuse.
Council on the Ageing (COTA) NSW said that the first step in a prevention strategy must be a government-funded education and awareness-raising campaign to enable the community to recognise elder abuse.
“Once such a campaign occurs, then the community can be engaged in the process of preventing elder abuse,” said COTA.
National Seniors similarly said it supported the development of a public awareness campaign, “which outlines the risks of abuse and highlights the mechanisms that can be used to minimise this risk.”
The key to minimising the risk of elder abuse is to keep open communication with your loved ones and take note of any behaviour that you find strange. Early intervention is key to preserve assets and to protect the older person.
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