In times gone past, elderly people were considered the human equivalent of a well of knowledge, treated with care and respect for however long they graced us with their presence.
Sadly, the story has changed.
Now, older people are often considered a burden to their busy families, already struggling and poor in terms of both time and money. This has opened up the floodgates for unsavoury people to take advantage of these, often trusting, older folk.
It’s called elder abuse.
What is Elder Abuse?
Elder abuse is classified by the Australian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (ANPEA) as:
“Any act occurring within a relationship where there is an implication of trust, which results in harm to an older person. Abuse may be physical, sexual, financial, psychological, social and/or neglect.”
The term has been around since the 1980s, and is used to describe the issue in many countries. Both in Australia and around the world, elder abuse is a complicated issue that often challenges the views that we have about how families work and how old people should be treated within our community. In many cases, neither the victim nor the perpetrator is even fully aware that what is happening constitutes an abuse.
Elder abuse tends to be hardest to eradicate when it is done by people who occupy a position of trust with an older person. These might be a family member (including a partner, an adult child, grandchild or even sibling), as well as a close friends or primary carer.
Many factors might contribute to elder abuse occurring, including existing patterns of abuse within a family, stressful situations often related to the journey of aging, the personal situation of the abuser (i.e. substance abuse or mental health), attitudes towards older people, a lack of service responses, and the social isolation common in older people.
What Can We Do As A Society?
As a society, one of the biggest problems facing those who are working to stop elder abuse from occurring is a lack of awareness about the issue. So, the first step in tackling this in Australia is to make sure that the law makers, and those whose responsibility it is to take care of our older people through the justice system, understand the devastating effect this kind of abuse can have. In the twilight of their lives, Australia’s older people shouldn’t be looking over their shoulder, or being controlled by standover people who do not respect them.
At the same time as the wider society needs to be aware of elder abuse, so too should Australia’s elderly people be informed of their full rights. Often, elder abuse goes unreported because older Australians do not feel as though what is happening to them is against the law. A stronger knowledge of their legal, financial and societal rights is key for older people, as well as a better idea of the support systems available to provide them with help and advice.
Unfortunately, we can’t turn back the clock, so one important step in this process is to provide for those older people who have already been victims of elder abuse. This will need to be a coordinated effort across various agencies in Australia, all working to provide adequate replacement care, full counselling, and other relevant supports to those people who are working through the aftermath of elder abuse.
What Can We Do Individually?
The best thing that you can do as an individual is to take a moment to think about the older people in your life. Are they getting the best care? Are they being treated well? Are they lonely or isolated? Making a difference to them might be as simple as offering to take them to a social event, an adults class, or even out for a cup of tea. You’ll probably find that a lack of transportation can be a major hindrance to older people wanting to socialise and live independent lives.
Of course, if you aren’t in a position to drive anybody around, you could simply pop over for a chat, and to check on their well-being. As people get older and their group of friends and family slowly decreases, it is easy for people to slip into a life of isolation.
If you don’t have any old people in your life at the moment, there are always ways to get involved with the older population of Australia. Call up your local city council and enquire about helping out at seniors social events, often organised in mid to large sized cities.
Alternatively, get in touch with the aged care homes near you and enquire about volunteer opportunities. Many of these centres are on the lookout for people to provide social enrichment for residents, not all of whom have family close by. Activities at a care home might be as simple as reading to a resident, or taking a walk around the grounds, but all make a difference.
For more information about elder abuse, and what you can do if you see it happening, visit the Domestic Violence Resource Centre – Elder Abuse.