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Stopping elder abuse requires community-wide effort

Opinion

Stopping elder abuse requires policy and legislative change but also an end to ageism – the systemic devaluation of older people, writes Jane Mussared.

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The appalling treatment of residents at the Oakden aged care facility has well and truly thrust the issue of elder abuse into the spotlight. And rightly so.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to the brave older people and their families who pushed for answers, and in doing so, placed the issue squarely at the feet of government and politicians and onward to the collective conscience of all South Australians.

Their actions will save lives, and to this day their advocacy continues to create real urgency around the much-needed reforms to ensure our most vulnerable older people are protected and that perpetrators of abuse are on notice.

But if we are to continue to learn from the persistence of those Oakden families, we must also remind ourselves that we can’t rest on our laurels and assume the hard work is done.

Today, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, is a timely reminder of the considerable onus on the wider community to keep an eye out for all forms of elder abuse – physical, sexual, psychological and, most commonly, financial.

While statistics on this are hard to come by, financial abuse is believed to be the most common type of elder abuse, with some estimates suggesting nearly one in 10 older Australians will fall victim to it.

Ageism certainly plays a role and remains pervasive and largely unchallenged in the South Australian community, creating an environment of risk particularly if older people require increasing support for living or lose capacity to protect themselves.

Financial abuse might well start in a small way – assisting an older friend or relative do their grocery shopping and not returning their change. But it often takes a more sinister form, including through denying access to personal funds, pressuring an older person to change a will, or misusing Power of Attorney.

Scholars and practitioners agree that ageism – the structural devaluation of older people within a society – heightens the risk of abuse.

Often victims of financial abuse are unaware it is happening to them because the person perpetrating the abuse is someone they love and trust. Many are unwilling to risk a relationship that might lead to isolation from family and friends. Some also struggle to report the matter to the police as they are reliant on those involved to assist them to do so or because they are unsure of their rights.

Our federal and state governments, responding to the pressure of citizens like the Oakden families, are beginning to tackle the legislative, policy and service gaps that have made it possible for elder abuse to continue unchecked. In SA, this is likely to mean that we will have an agency that will coordinate the right services to support vulnerable adults who are being abused.

From a Federal Government point of view, there is a commitment to a national plan, focused on promoting the agency of older people, addressing ageism, achieving national consistency, safeguarding people at risk and build an evidence base to respond better. An important part of this will mean better understanding the prevalence of abuse.

Last week COTA Australia joined the Australian Banking Association and National Seniors to urge the federal, state and territory governments to agree to standardised Power of Attorney orders across all states, a National Online Register for Enduring Powers of Attorney to help banks verify whether a Power of Attorney is current, and dedicated organisations in each jurisdiction where bank staff can be supported to come forward and safely report suspected financial abuse for investigation.

Financial abuse is often hard to detect and stop because those involved are often close family and friends. Sometimes the pressure results from so-called ‘inheritance impatience’ where adult children try to access prematurely what they believe is their entitlement.

Scholars and practitioners agree that ageism – the structural devaluation of older people within a society – heightens the risk of abuse. Best practice in addressing violence against women includes strategies that address gender inequality and counter sexism. We need to place a similar priority on tackling ageism.

But the buck also sits with us – the South Australian community. Along with the law changes, there also needs to be much greater community awareness of elder abuse. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes all of us to be part of a community that sees, listens and acts when something is not right.

Jane Mussared is chief executive of the Council on the Ageing SA.

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