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Defining elder abuse

The abuse of older people is complex and confronting. Understanding it starts by defining it.

The World Health Organisation defines elder abuse as:

"A single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust that causes harm or distress to an older person.”

The abuse of older people is complex and confronting. Understanding it starts by defining it.

The World Health Organisation defines elder abuse as:

"A single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust that causes harm or distress to an older person.”

Last updated: July 2020
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Abuse types explained

Elder abuse comes in many forms.

  • It can be financial, emotional or psychological, physical, sexual, or neglect, and can include stand-alone abuse or a combination of the different types of abuse
  • It can be intentional or unintentional
  • It can occur once, or many times
  • It can be carried out by someone known to the older person, like a family member, friend, professional, or paid caregiver

Whilst elder abuse affects all genders across all walks of life, the abuse disproportionately affects more women than men. Often more than one type of abuse can be used. Some forms of abuse, such as sexual abuse, are criminal acts.

The types of abuse elders experience

When we know what to look for, the better we are at identifying elder abuse.
These are the five commonly recognised types of abuse older people experience.

The theft or misuse of an older person’s money, assets or property.

It may be:

  • Withdrawing money without permission
  • Selling an older person’s home without consent
  • Not repaying loans or not contributing to household expenses
  • Misusing Powers of Attorney
  • Going grocery shopping and keeping the change
  • Taking advantage of the sharing of resources within families and communities

Any act that causes emotional pain, anguish, or distress, or is demeaning to an individual.

It may be:

  • Name calling, or treating the older person like a child
  • Confining or isolating an older person 
  • Withholding affection, such as refusing access to grandchildren
  • Preventing social contact with family and friends 
  • Denying or limiting social activities, such as religious, cultural or community events
  • Not obtaining or incorporating an older person’s wishes or preferences in exercising powers of attorney
  • Misleading an individual’s capacity for decision-making
  • Taking away decision-making powers
  • Withholding or controlling mail
  • Taking over the older person’s home so that their normal social contacts don’t continue
  • Verbal threats, like “Do what I say, or I’ll put you in a home”

An act that causes physical pain, injury or a combination of both.
Physical abuse may appear as a change in appearance, attitude, or behaviour.

It may be:

  • Hitting, pushing, or shaking
  • Misuse or overuse of medications
  • Physical restraint
  • Putting an older person in a position they can’t get out of, like a chair
  • Locking an older person in a room

Any behaviour of a sexual nature, done to an older person without their consent. This includes physical interactions and non-contact acts of a sexual nature.

It may be:

  • Non-consensual sexual contact, language, or behaviour
  • Enforced nudity
  • Cleaning or treating the older person’s genital area roughly or inappropriately
  • Unwanted exposure to pornographic material
  • Any behaviour that makes an older person feel uncomfortable about their body, gender, or sexual identity

The failure to meet an older person’s basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, warmth or essential medical care. 

Neglect is defined as:

  • A failure to provide medical attention or care
  • Not providing adequate food or drink
  • Poor personal hygiene, like unclean clothing
  • Unmet physical needs, like withholding dentures or a walking frame
  • Refusing to allow others to provide appropriate care
  • Abandoning an older person with insufficient or no support

Neglect is often gradual and can be intentional or unintentional.
For example, it could a nominated carer struggling to cope.
 

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Every one of us at every age is entitled to be treated fairly and enjoy the same opportunities. This does not diminish with age.

The negative impact of ageism

Every one of us at every age is entitled to be treated fairly and enjoy the same opportunities. This does not diminish with age. But discrimination based on age is present everywhere. It can distort our attitudes to older people and contribute to an environment where:

  • Elder abuse goes unnoticed
  • Action to prevent elder abuse isn’t taken
  • Older people don’t feel like they can speak up
  • Older people are prevented or limited from contributing or participating as full citizens

It’s important to know that the rights of older people are protected by law and enshrined in principles established by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR). Their Principles for Older Persons state that every older person has the right to:

  • Independence
  • Participation
  • Care
  • Self-fulfillment
  • Dignity1

In Australia we aspire to a society that:

  • Respects and values older people
  • Appreciates the contribution that older people make to their communities
  • Affirms the dignity and worth of every person

Common factors that increase the risk of abuse

Every individual and every life situation is different. But there are some common factors that can increase the risk of elder abuse. These factors fall into three categories: social, economic, and personal. Several factors from multiple categories often contribute to an individual's experience of abuse.

Examples include:

Isolation or exclusion

No one to witness the abuse, and not knowing where or who to turn to for support.
Geographical location may limit inclusion in social activities.

Cultural and linguistic differences

People from diverse backgrounds may be influenced by their cultural or generational attitudes to gender and family responsibilities. Response and services may not be culturally acceptable or available in their preferred language. Some people may be reluctant to seek help if they fear racism or discrimination.

Attitudes of ageism

Beliefs that undervalue the contribution older people make to our communities.
 

Examples include:

Financial exclusion

People with low financial literacy may exclude them from decision-making

Financial pressures

Low or no income, dependency upon others, no permanent residence

A lack of transport

Limited or no access to transport may lead to social isolation and a lack of independence

A lack of contact

Limited access to a phone, email, interpreter, or other methods of communicating
 

Examples include:

Substance abuse problems

Alcohol, illicit drugs, or gambling that impact the older person or the carer.

Reduced capacity 

Poor physical and mental health, and cognitive impairment may increase reliance on others for support in daily living activities.

Past experiences

A history of family conflict that may have led to abuse being normalised. There is evidence that indicates people who experience any type of violence when younger are more likely to be exposed to elder abuse.

Gender, gender identification & sexual orientation

Women are more likely to experience abuse than men, and some people experience compounding factors. For example, older LGBTIQ+ people are more susceptible to discrimination or abuse relating to their gender identity and their sexual orientation.
 

In some cases, a single dominant factor may be the cause of elder abuse.
For example, it may be a financial pressure or gender related.

But it is not uncommon for several factors across categories - social, economic and personal – to overlap. These connections – our circumstances, our identities and our experiences – not only create higher risks of abuse or violence, they may result in a person experiencing overlapping forms of discrimination and marginalisation.

For example, the impact of historical treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities mean that Aboriginal populations are subject to higher levels of violence than other members of the population. In turn, this impacts the way older Aboriginals are treated or seek help.
 

Who is capable of elder abuse?

Unfortunately, elder abuse is mostly carried out by an individual or group the older person trusts. Research shows that in two-thirds of reported cases, abuse is perpetrated by a son or daughter.2

Other common characteristics of known perpetrators include:

  • The majority of perpetrators are aged 35 to 54 years of age, regardless of gender
  • In many cases, the older person lives with the abuser
  • A significant number of abusers are identified as having substance abuse issues or a gambling problem

It is important to note that although many carers go out of their way to genuinely care for the person they are looking after, and may simply be in need of more information and support, this is never an excuse for the mistreatment of an older person.

What to read next

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