The World Health Organization estimates that around 1 in 6 people 60 years and older have experienced some form of abuse during the past year. Here, we explore what elder abuse is, how to spot the warning signs, and where to get help if you or someone you know is experiencing it.
Elder abuse occurs when a person in a position of power – usually a carer – harms, exploits or mistreats an older person. The abuse can be a one-off incident, ongoing or part of a history of domestic and family violence.
It’s often hard to tell when elder abuse is taking place. In fact, for years, elder abuse and other issues around aged care were barely spoken about. Even today, we don’t always think about the demands placed on carers, or the difficulties and frustrations elderly people face. It’s these stresses that can give rise to abuse – and also keep it hidden.
Sadly, physical signs of elder abuse abuse can be dismissed by a perpetrator as dementia or the fragility that comes with old age. Emotional signs can also take time to appear, and outright accusations from the victim may also be dismissed. Often, an older person isn’t able to report unjust treatment at all due to isolation, cognitive impairment or physical limitations.
This makes it all the more important for those in the community to watch out for abuse and take action if they see something concerning.
Types of elder abuse
Elder abuse can take many forms, the most common being financial abuse and neglect.
However, there is a range of other types of elder abuse, including:
- Physical abuse – a deliberate act that causes pain, injury or intimidation. This includes all forms of physical assault and restraint.
- Psychological or emotional abuse – an intentional threat or action that causes fear of violence, isolation, deprivation, humiliation or powerlessness.
- Sexual abuse – any sexual interaction that occurs without an older person’s consent, or through coercion.
- Neglect – a carer’s failure to provide basic necessities such as food, shelter or medial care, or preventing someone else from providing them. A common sign of neglect is poor personal hygiene.
- Social abuse – forced isolation that stops or limits an older person’s contact with friends, family or their community. Social isolation often allows other forms of abuse and abandonment to take place.
- Financial abuse – the illegal mismanagement or improper use of an older person’s finances. This includes stealing money or possessions, or controlling finances without permission.
Signs of elder abuse
It can be difficult to know what to look for when you’re worried about elder abuse, or to know if certain behaviours are the result of abuse, or the changes and complications that can come with age. But while it can be hard to spot, there are signs to look out for. Physical injuries – from bruises to broken bones – and changes in a person’s financial situation can be clear indicators that something is amiss. But subtle changes in behaviour – like noticing that someone has become withdrawn, forgetful or evasive – can also suggest abuse might be occurring.
Take note if it becomes hard to visit an older person. Watch out for weight loss, confusion, poor hygiene, increased hospitalisations and low self-esteem. Be wary if you see a carer argue with, belittle or punish someone.
Take claims of abuse seriously and reach out to those you’re concerned about, but only when you believe it’s safe to do so. Staying in regular contact and understanding an older person’s situation is the best way to spot signs of elder abuse, and let someone know you’re there for them.
Remember that there are professional services and resources available. You’ll find a list of useful contacts at the end of this article.
What can cause elder abuse to occur
It can be tempting to judge those who commit elder abuse harshly, and indeed it seems inexcusable that someone would willingly harm another person.
While elder abuse is never acceptable or justified, it’s more likely to occur when a carer is experiencing high levels of stress, feeling overworked, dealing with depression or addiction, or dependant on the older person for support – be that financially, socially or physically. It may also occur if a carer is looking after someone who was once abusive themselves, or is made to feel isolated and unsupported in their role.
Caregiving can be an undervalued, invisible role with that comes with a huge mental and physical burden. If your situation has changed as a caregiver, or you’re struggling in the role and worry you may harm or neglect those in your care, know that support is available. It’s always best to take action before a situation escalates and abuse occurs.
What to you if you suspect or witness elder abuse
Elder abuse is incredibly distressing, and finding someone who understands this complex issue can help you decide what to do if you’re worried that someone you know is being mistreated or exploited.
Where appropriate, speak to the older person and keep a record of events. Ask them about their wellbeing and relationships. They may feel ashamed or worried about possible consequences, so stay calm, be patient and open, and avoid blame. You may need to offer careful prompts if you sense they’re nervous about opening up. Most importantly, let them know that help is available and that you can put them in touch with the relevant organisations.
If you think an older person is in immediate danger, call 000.
If you’re after information, support or referrals, contact the NSW Ageing and Disability Abuse Helpline.
What to do if you’re being exploited or mistreated
If you feel threatened or unsafe, always call 000. The police can help remove an abusive person from your home, or help you find safe accommodation.
You may feel protective of the person mistreating or exploiting you, particularly if they’re your adult child. However, it’s important to remember that you have a right to feel safe, comfortable and protected, and that people – including adult children – can get help for their problems.
Finding someone to talk to and share your concerns with can make a huge difference. This could be a trusted friend, family member or trained professional. Relationships Australia NSW’s Let’s Talk Elder Support and Mediation Service could also help improve your situation.
Where to get help for elder abuse or neglect
The following organisations provide information and support for older people and concerned family and friends.
- NSW Ageing and Disability Abuse Helpline – offers information, support and referrals for anyone who experiences, witnesses or suspects the abuse of an older person.
- Aged Care Complaints Commissioner – reach out if there’s concern around the care you or someone you know is receiving via an Australian Government-funded aged care provider.
- NSW Seniors Rights Service – provides legal information, advocacy and information about your rights in aged care.
- Carers NSW – this organisation works with carers to improve their health, wellbeing, resilience and financial security.
- Lifeline – call for crisis support, referrals and suicide intervention.
Relationships Australia NSW offers a range of support services for older people, as well as counselling services for carers who may be experiencing stress, depression or other concerns. Contact us for a discussion in a supportive and respectful environment.