Preventing elder abuse: the warning signs and how to take action

Elder abuse is not an easy issue to talk about, and as a result it continues to be one of the most unrecognised forms of abuse that Victorians face.

We know that up to 14% of older Australians experience elder abuse, and more often than not, abuse is perpetrated by a family member or loved one.   

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has magnified concerns around an increase in elder abuse. Messaging around the pandemic has amplified the perceived vulnerability of older Australians, which could lead to a rise in ageism – a key driver of elder abuse. And as we all stay at home more, for older people this can mean ending up isolated or without usual supports. For others, it may mean moving back in with relatives or vice versa.   

Our Respect Older People: 'Call It Out' campaign asks Victorians to ‘call it out’ and be active bystanders when they see, hear, or are concerned about elder abuse. It also supports older people to recognise that elder abuse is not okay, and that support is available. Respect Victoria hopes to remind older Victorians that they are seen, have power, and have the right to be free from violence. 

Older people can face many barriers to reporting elder abuse, including shame, feeling responsible for the actions of the perpetrator, and fear of repercussions if they seek support. It’s important that we dismantle these stigmas.

Elder abuse can be difficult to spot. So, we spoke with Jenny Blakey, Manager of Seniors Rights Victoria to create a list of what to look out for, and what to do if you or someone you care about needs help. 

Recognising physical, emotional and psychological abuse

Emotional abuse can include verbal abuse, pressuring and bullying, or direct threats to harm the person, other people or pets. Physical abuse includes any act that causes injury or trauma, and sexual abuse. Wondering how to recognise the signs that an older relative or friend might be experiencing abuse? 

“Some signs of abuse can be fear or depression. Someone might express to you a feeling of helplessness, or that they’re really lonely. Step in and start a conversation with them about what’s going on,” says Jenny.

Wondering how to start the conversation? You can try:

  • I’ve noticed that you have been a bit flat. Can I help with anything? 
  • I overheard [the perpetrator] speaking to you in a way that I’m not comfortable with. Do you feel safe?
  • I noticed the bruise on your arm, and I’m wondering if we can talk about it. 

Noticing financial abuse

Financial abuse is the most common form of elder abuse in Victoria. It happens when somebody – often a family member – uses a trusted relationship with an older person to take advantage of them financially. This could mean stealing money, taking charge of bank accounts, forcing them to change their will, or using their money or assets illegally. 

“Maybe someone is borrowing money but never paying it back, or using credit cards without permission. It can even be more subtle, like having an older person pay someone else’s bills,” says Jenny.

Look out for unusual financial activity. If an older relative wants to change the title on their home, or suddenly becomes concerned about money, have a conversation with them. Keep an eye out for possessions that suddenly go missing, or an inability to pay for basics like food or bills.  

Recognising social abuse and neglect

“Social abuse is all about separating an older person from their support systems. It could mean not letting them use the phone, or stopping them from doing the things they ordinarily love to do,” says Jenny.

When it comes to both social abuse and neglect, it’s important to watch for withdrawal or sadness, or a loss of self-esteem. Neglect occurs if the needs and supports that a relative or carer is supposed to provide are taken away or not provided. 

“Maybe it’s restricting food or medical care, or maybe a family member or a friend is receiving the Carer Allowance, but isn’t actually providing any care,” says Jenny. 

If you’re worried about neglect, watch for physical signs that something might be wrong. Has someone lost a lot of weight, or are they wearing the wrong clothes for the conditions? Are they living in a dangerous or dirty environment? 

Have the conversation

The first step to preventing elder abuse is keeping an eye out for the signs that it might be happening. Then, make sure you have the conversation. 

“It needs to be a judgement-free, criticism-free conversation. A hint of cynicism or disbelief might mean they won’t share important information, and if elder abuse is happening, that’s the last thing you want,” says Jenny. 

How to seek help

If you or someone you know is in danger and needs immediate support, call 000 for police assistance. 
Older people or anyone concerned about their welfare should contact:

  • Seniors Rights Victoria for advice and support on issues relating to elder abuse on 1300 368 821, or visit their website
  • Safe Steps for people experiencing violence. Contact them on 1800 015 188, or via live chat on their website.
  • 1800 Respect for people impacted by family violence. Contact them on 1800 737 732 and find more information on their website.