The continued rise of elder abuse

Elder abuse in Australia is on the rise, with around six per cent of older Australians 65 and over suffering from some form of abuse – most often at the hands of trusted family members and friends.

The 4th National Elder Abuse Conference is currently being held in Melbourne and yesterday Senator George Brandis Attorney-General addressed the conference with an outline for combatting elder abuse in Australia.

“All of us are appalled by accounts of older people being mistreated, neglected; even physically or sexually abused. It sometimes seems that not a day goes by without a report of an assault, a scam, or some other mistreatment involving taking advantage of an older Australian,” stated Senator Brandis. “All Australians have the right to make their own decisions, to live self-determined lives, to live with dignity and free from exploitation, violence and abuse. Those rights do not diminish with age.”

He also praised Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan for her contributions towards protecting the rights of older Australians.

“She has vastly improved our understanding of issues faced by older Australians and I want to thank and congratulate her for that heartbreaking work,” he said.

Elder abuse can take the form of physical, sexual, emotional, mental and, most commonly, financial abuse. Although five to six per cent of older Australians are victims of elder abuse, those numbers could well be higher because of a natural reluctance to report such abuses by family members or friends.

In 2013–14, around $56.7 million was found ‘misappropriated’ from victims of elder abuse, stemming from such schemes as pension skimming, or accessing by family members of bank accounts and credit cards without consent, as well as abuse of power of attorney, where older people are denied access to their own money, or older people being coerced into changing the terms of their estate.

As our ageing population increases in number, the instances of elder abuse can be expected to soar.

In order to tackle the rising tide of elder abuse in Australia, aged care groups and welfare experts have called for the creation of a governing body to monitor and address the exploitation of older Australians. Manager of Seniors Rights Victoria Jenny Blakey also believes an organisation is needed to oversee the rights and treatment of the elderly.

“Not in a heavy-handed, police-approach way, because that would really scare and could really be detrimental in that sort of response, but a response that could come in and investigate, is this a problem or isn’t it, and is this person being isolated so they can’t act,” she said.

To help raise Government awareness of this issue, Senator Brandis yesterday released an Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) report he commissioned last year, so that a more informed discussion can take place on how to combat these abuses in the future.

“The consequences of abuse, as the study found, are, as we all know, severe. It can destroy quality of life; it can isolate and disempower; and it can significantly increase the risk of untimely death,” he said. “We believe that financial abuse and psychological abuse are the most common forms of elder abuse. We know that abuse is most likely, I’m sorry to say, to be perpetrated by adult children taking advantage of their parents’ love and trust.”

It is to be hoped that the conference is a first step towards combatting elder abuse in Australia.

Read the AIFS report
Read the full transcript of Senator Brandis’ speech to the National Elder Abuse Conference.

Opinion: Are you an unwitting victim?

It is often assumed that elder abuse takes the form of physical violence, but as the AIFS report shows, it more commonly involves financial abuse by trusted family members, often stemming from something called ‘inheritance impatience’.

This occurs when older Australians are encouraged, or coerced, by family members to either sell the family home or give them access to retirement savings.

According to NSW Seniors Rights Service solicitor Tom Cowen, the most common instances are known as ‘granny flat cases’.

“Elderly parents are induced to sell their home with an agreement that they can live in a granny flat at their child’s property for life,” he told 720 ABC Perth. “Unfortunately the relationship between parents and children breakdown or the child and their spouse separate and the house becomes part of a financial settlement.”

Often these arrangements lead to relationship breakdowns, leaving many older Australians homeless and penniless.

Besides financial abuse, other instances of elder abuse include physical, sexual and mental abuse by carers, and emotional abuse by family members, which can take the form of social isolation and psychological torment.

Elder abuse is defined by the Australian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse 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.

So, how do you protect yourself from what is primarily an abuse of trust?

The AIFS report suggests that the first step should be “changing the values and attitudes among the broader community and among professionals and individuals who interact with elders”, and the second step “mitigating the risk factors for elder abuse”.

Now that the Government has its report on how to go about tackling this issue, a public education campaign is sorely needed, so that the instances of abuse can be recognised by the wider community and elder abuse is no longer an invisible crime.

Until effective strategies are put in place, there are actions that can be taken within the community to help safeguard older Australians against elder abuse, such as monitoring risk factors. This includes monitoring older people who are socially isolated or withdrawn, or who have poor physical health; keeping a check on people with dementia, mental health or substance abuse issues, as well as family members or carers with mental health or substance abuse issues.

We can also keep an eye out for the warning signs of elder abuse which include, but are not limited to, the following:

Financial Exploitation

  • lack of affordable amenities and comforts
  • caregivers who have access to an elder’s money but fail to provide for their needs
  • those who have signed property transfers (or power of attorney or will) but aren’t sure what the transaction means


Physical Abuse

  • unexplained fractures, bruises, welts, cuts, sores, burns, or sexually transmitted diseases



  • lack of basic hygiene
  • lack of appropriate clothing
  • lack of food
  • lack of medical aids
  • unsupervised person with dementia
  • those confined to bed without care
  • cluttered, dirty homes
  • homes in disrepair
  • lack of adequate facilities, such as cooktop, refrigerator, heating, cooling, plumbing or electricity
  • untreated bed sores or pressure ulcers.

Emotional Abuse

  • unexplained or uncharacteristic changes in behaviour
  • withdrawal from normal activities
  • unexplained changes in alertness
  • older people isolated by caregivers
  • verbally aggressive, controlling, or uncaring caregivers

Although Senator Brandis is to be commended for his stated intention to tackle elder abuse, we all know how the wheels of Government turn – extremely slowly. This is the fourth conference focusing on the issue, and much information available online is now quite old – illustrating just how little ground we’ve made til now in dealing with elder abuse. Let’s just hope we see some actual positive action taken soon.

In the meantime, we, as a community, can all do our part to help protect the older generation, giving them the respect they deserve, and the ability to live their late years in peace and comfort.

Do you know anyone who has fallen victim to elder abuse? Have you suffered elder abuse? What sort of strategies would you like to see put in place to help combat this issue? Do you have any recommendations to help our members safeguard themselves from elder abuse?

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.