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Recognising Elder Abuse

Abuse doesn’t discriminate. People of all ages, ethnicity, environment and gender may be vulnerable or at risk. Help starts here.

Compass knows there are some characteristics or factors that older people who experience abuse are likely to share. These factors can be grouped into three categories: Environmental, Personal, and Perpetrator. Although these are not the cause of abuse, they should be considered as risk factors and can be helpful in understanding who is at greater risk of abuse.

Abuse doesn’t discriminate. People of all ages, ethnicity, environment and gender may be vulnerable or at risk. Help starts here.

Compass knows there are some characteristics or factors that older people who experience abuse are likely to share. These factors can be grouped into three categories: Environmental, Personal, and Perpetrator. Although these are not the cause of abuse, they should be considered as risk factors and can be helpful in understanding who is at greater risk of abuse.

Last updated: October 2020
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Environmental factors

The following describe some of the leading external factors that can contribute to or influence vulnerability to abuse.

May occur if a nominated carer is under stress to provide proper care for an older person.

This includes:

  • An older person’s dependence on another for care
  • An older person being in a co-dependent relationship
  • An older person caring for an intellectually, emotionally or mentally ill adult
  • A carer’s or family member’s dependence on the older person for income or accommodation

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. Some people may be reluctant to seek help if they fear racism or discrimination.

Families with a history of intergenerational violence, domestic violence and unresolved issues may experience ongoing conflict and dysfunction. Older family members may be punished as ‘pay back’.

Older people with small social networks, limited social participation or geographical isolation can struggle to find a support network. There may be no one to witness abuse.

Limited awareness of or access to support options and services.

Language barriers, differences in cultural values, historical norms and/or the emigration experience.

This includes but is not limited to living with a son, daughter, an in-law, extended family, a lodger/boarder or a carer.

Financial pressures or difficulties associated with home ownership (debt, upkeep, renting, social housing).

Personal factors

The following describe some of the leading personal factors that can contribute to or influence vulnerability to abuse.

Substance abuse, including alcohol and drugs (prescription and/or illicit), and problem gambling can create unhealthy relationships and behaviours that lead to a heightened risk of abuse.

Confined to a bed or wheelchair or experiencing limited movement due to poor health or disability.

Older women are more likely to experience abuse than men.

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

This includes:

  • Increased abuse of the carer by the older person due to uncontrolled behaviour(s)
  • A reduced capacity to act independently without guardian, administrator or attorney intervention
  • A reduced capacity to report abuse
  • If the abuse is reported, the older person may struggle to be believed

An older person experiencing mental health issues or living with a person with mental illness.

Perpetrator factors

The following describe some of the significant factors that contribute to perpetrators abusing older people.

The majority of perpetrators are aged between 35 and 541, supporting the statistics that most perpetrators are a son or daughter of the client (see below).

Two thirds of elder abuse is perpetrated by a son or daughter1. A majority of older people reported the person causing abuse was related to them or in a de facto relationship. They may be dependent on the older person.

Situations where an older person’s spouse or partner are the perpetrators.

In the majority of cases where an older person suffering abuse also lives with an adult child, a son, daughter (or son/daughter-in-law) is responsible for the abuse.

A large number of alleged perpetrators are identified by the older person as having gambling or substance abuse problems. These may also be linked with mental health issues.

May occur when the older person lives with a person experiencing mental health issues, often their children.

Negative attitude and behaviour towards the older person.

What to look for: family, friends, carers

Whether you’re a family member, a friend, a neighbour or carer to an older person, it's everybody's business to look out for the older people in our lives.

Discover how you can play your part in helping to stop elder abuse.

What to look for: signs and behaviours

Knowing if in an older person is experiencing abuse starts by knowing what to look for. These often present themselves in two forms:

Common behaviours

The behaviours or actions as shown by the older person and/or the perpetrator

Common warning signs

The visual clues often associated with elder abuse

These behaviours and warning signs may occur across the five types of abuse experienced by older people.

  • Financial abuse
  • Emotional or psychological abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Neglect

To get a clearer understanding of what to look for in each, expand them below.

Behaviours

  • Threats or coercion over assets or wills
  • Denying someone access to their own money and/or taking control of someone’s finances against their wishes 
  • Abusing Powers of Attorney
  • The theft of personal items like jewellery, credit cards, cash, food, and other possessions
  • The unauthorised use of banking and financial documents
  • Adding a signatory to a bank account

Warning signs

  • An unexplained disappearance of belongings
  • An unexplained inability to pay bills
  • Significant bank withdrawals
  • Changes to wills
  • Access to bank accounts or statements is blocked
  • An accumulation of unpaid bills
  • An empty fridge
  • A disparity between living conditions and money
  • No money to pay for home essentials like food, clothing, and utilities

 

Behaviours

  • Name calling, and verbal abuse
  • Treating the adult like a child
  • Threatening harm to the adult, other people or pets
  • Engaging in emotional blackmail such as threatening to withdraw access to grandchildren, family, friends, services or telephone
  • Threats to place an older person in an aged care facility
  • Preventing contact with family and friends
  • Denying access to the phone or computer or withholding mail
  • Preventing a person from engaging in religious or cultural practices
  • Moving the person far away family or friends

Warning signs

  • Any one of the following: resignation, shame, depression, tearfulness, confusion, agitation
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Unexplained paranoia or excessive fear
  • A change in appetite or sleep patterns, such as insomnia
  • Unusual passivity or anger
  • Sadness or grief at the loss of interactions with others
  • Withdrawal or listlessness due to a lack of visitors
  • A change to levels of self-esteem
  • Worry or anxiety after a visit by a specific person/people
  • Social isolation

Behaviours

  • Pushing, shoving, or rough handling
  • Kicking, hitting, punching, slapping, biting, and/or burning
  • Physical restraint
  • Denying medical treatment
  • Locking the person in a room or home
  • Tying the person to a chair or bed
  • Intentional injury with a weapon or object
  • Overuse or misuse of medications


Warning signs

  • Internal or external injuries, including sprains, dislocations and fractures, pressure sores, unexplained bruises or marks on different areas of the body, pain on touching
  • Broken or healing bones
  • Lacerations to the mouth, lips, gums, eyes or ears
  • Missing teeth and/or eye injuries
  • Evidence of hitting, punching, shaking, pulling, such as bruises, lacerations, choke marks, hair loss or welts
  • Burns, i.e. rope, cigarettes, matches, iron, and/or hot water

Behaviours

  • Non-consensual sexual contact, language or exploitative behaviour
  • Rape and sexual assault
  • Cleaning or treating the person’s genital area roughly or inappropriately
  • Enforced nudity of the person against their consent


Warning signs

  • Unexplained STD or incontinence (bladder or bowel)
  • Injury and trauma, e.g. scratches, bruises etc. to face, neck, chest, abdomen, thighs or buttocks
  • Trauma including bleeding around the genitals, chest, rectum or mouth
  • Torn or bloody underclothing or bedding
  • Human bite marks
  • Anxiety around the perpetrator and other psychological symptoms

Behaviours

  • Failure to provide basic needs, such as food, adequate or clean clothing, heating and medicines
  • Under- or over-medicating
  • Exposure to danger or lack of supervision, such as leaving the person in an unsafe place or in isolation
  • An overly attentive carer in the company of others
  • A carer denies others the opportunity to provide appropriate care

Warning signs

  • Inadequate clothing
  • Complaints of being too cold or too hot
  • Poor personal hygiene and/or an unkempt appearance
  • Lack of medical or dental care
  • Injuries that have not been properly cared for
  • Absence of required aids
  • Exposure to unsafe, unhealthy, and/or unsanitary conditions
  • Unexplained weight loss, dehydration, poor skin integrity, malnutrition

Need information or advice on elder abuse now?

Need information or advice on elder abuse now?
CALL 1800 ELDERHelp (1800 353 374)

In an emergency call 000

This free number will redirect you to an existing phone service near you. This is not a 24-hour line. Call operating times will vary. A collaboration between the Australian, state and territory governments.