Why are we abusing our parents? The ugly facts of family violence and ageism

Why are we abusing our parents? The ugly facts of family violence and ageism

3 February 2016
Why are we abusing our parents? The ugly facts of family violence and ageism

Briony Dow discusses the nature and extent of elder abuse in Australia and how it can be prevented.

Although population ageing is overwhelmingly a good thing, representing a healthier population overall and a longer more productive lifespan for most, it also means an increase in elder abuse. There is little public awareness of the extent and nature of elder abuse. Consequently, it is rarely recognised even by those who may be perpetrating or on the receiving end of it.

My name’s Gwen. I’m 76 years old. About six months ago my boy Craig got mixed up in gambling and that drug ‘ice’. He got kicked out of the place he was living in because he couldn’t pay the rent. I agreed to him moving in with me because I love him and wanted to help him out.

It was okay at first. But then he got aggressive towards me. He punched the wall near where I was sitting in the kitchen and left a big hole in it. He started taking my pension money. He says he’ll hurt my little dog, Charlie, if I tell anyone. I’m afraid in my home now. But I don’t want to tell the police; what kind of mother would I be if I got my boy into trouble?

Older people experiencing abuse from family members share the same experience as women suffering intimate partner violence in having someone close to them, whom they ought to be able to trust, perniciously erode their sense of safety and wellbeing through excessive use of power and control.

However, when adult children abuse their parents, feelings of parental love and responsibility coupled with shame and guilt for having “failed” as a parent often stop the parent from seeking help and protecting themselves.

The intergenerational nature of elder abuse differentiates it from other forms of family violence. It means that empowerment of older people and recognition of their rights at both a societal and individual level are crucial.

A neglected area of abuse

We don’t know exactly how often elder abuse occurs in Australia. There has never been a population prevalence study. However, up to 6% of older Australians are subjected to abuse in any one year.

The National Ageing Research Institute recently analysed data from Seniors Rights Victoria, the key Victorian statewide service responding to elder abuse. The report found that 92% of elder abuse occurred within the family. Adult sons and daughters perpetrated two-thirds (67%) of this abuse.

Another troubling finding was that abuse of one type rarely occurred in isolation. For example, financial abuse was coupled with another form of abuse in 65% of cases.

While men and women were both affected by elder abuse, men were more likely to be the perpetrators (60%) and women were more likely to be the victims (72.5%). This means that the intersection of age and gender may make older women particularly vulnerable.

As Gwen’s story illustrates, a typical scenario is one in which a middle-aged son or daughter moves back into the family home. This may be because their relationship has broken down, they have become homeless, they have a drug, alcohol or gambling problem or a mental health condition.

Cohabitation of adult children and their elderly parents is a risk factor for abuse. This is often due to broader service system failures to assist adult children manage their problems, or to adequately support parents acting as carers.

Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence does include seniors in its terms of reference. Despite this, the media and societal focus is still mainly on women of child-bearing age and children. We need to recognise that family violence does not stop just because the victim is older. Actually, that is often when it starts.

Prevalent ageist attitudes mean that older people’s rights are minimised or discounted in favour of the interests of younger generations. An example is when adult children take control of their parent’s finances in the expectation that they will one day inherit everything anyway.

Ageism is a key factor

Just as addressing gender inequality and ensuring respect for women are central to stopping violence against women, so is overcoming ageism. Promoting the dignity and inherent value of older people is a crucial component of elder abuse prevention.

In recent years, this issue has attracted some government attention. A helpline operates in every state and territory, but there is no nationally consistent approach. The level of assistance available varies from a telephone and referral service to an integrated legal and case management model, such as that provided by Seniors Rights Victoria.

Elder abuse is experienced at the individual and family level, but to address it we need action at all levels:

  • Building societal awareness of elder abuse as a serious social and public health problem and a real and devastating family violence issue, and addressing ageism as a key causative factor.

  • Systematic and ongoing professional development of those who regularly come into contact with older people (for example, GPs and hospital staff), so that they can recognise and respond appropriately to elder abuse.

  • Empowering older people to safeguard their personal and financial security and providing service responses that uphold the human rights we all share – to live in safety and free from violence.

This article was co-authored by Cybele Stockley, project officer from Seniors Rights Victoria. Older Victorians experiencing elder abuse can get help by calling Seniors Rights Victoria on 1300 368 821 Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm. Services include a helpline, specialist legal services, short-term support and advocacy for individuals and community and professional education.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The feature image is by Rasmus Andersson, CC BY-NC 2.0.


This highlights the importance of early intervention to address adolescent family violence within the family.
Thanks for your comment, Mary. You may be interested in our recent article on adolescent violence in the home: https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/2015/12/08/adolescent-violence-home-how-it-different-adult-family-violence
Ken Knight
My husband and I suffered parental abuse over a very long and hard 10 years. We told nobody. We were bullied and abused daily. Six years ago it stopped. We moved states, we had to walk away from our grand children. It was hard, but she would have killed me had we not moved. Three years ago we had to move back because her children were taken into care, who now are living with us. I always have to look over my shoulder, my car doors are always locked as is my home. Its a terrible thing to admit that your child hits you and mentslly abuses you. BUT we cannot let these children continue to rule our lives. We have to stand up and be strong and take back our lives.
Carol P
Thank you for your comment, Carol.
Ken Knight
I worked with older people for many years before retiring and these stories are all to familiar. Often it is grandchildren, their partners or even the great grandchildren engaging in sequential stealing, assaults and verbal abuse of the elderly. The sheer physical disparities between the abusers and the elderly make this especially horrific. Ultimately no matter how lonely, generous or comparatively well off an elderly person is they need to be very wary of relatives and others seeking unfettered access to their home, person or possessions. Maintaining the fantasy of a loving family life comes at too great cost. My rule of thumb with the elderly I interacted with - if you are unable to physically toss them off your property or exert sufficient moral, social or other pressure to achieve the same result - then don't let them move in. One bedroom apartments help reduce the demands to co-habitate. Finally, many retirement villages have rules about visitors not staying over night without permission which sound very Nanny State but can often be a blessing for elderly who are vulnerable to predations from family. I have assisted a number of elderly into face saving moves into such retirement homes purely in order to side step avaricious family with poor boundaries over elderly relatives property.
My brother suffers from several untreated mental illnesses (we suspect delusion disorder and narcissism) and lived with Mum well into his own middle age! For years since Dad died he has manipulated and alienated our mother for his own narcissistic ego and she became fearful he'd leave as she knew she couldn't live there without him and the small support and occasional company he provided (he always told her how much she needed him). Her motherly needs of looking after someone kept her keen to have him there regardless of the fears she had. Ultimately she needed to go to a nursing home as none of us could any longer support her, but he fought it continually as it suited his narcissistic personality to keep her in her home regardless of the amount of falls she had. He actively encouraged her to not use the walker or walking stick so she'd end up falling and breaking yet more bones. It's been incredibly despairing for many years as he had nowhere else to live and kept control of Mum, but she took a bad turn a few months ago when he was away which gave us the opportunity to help Mum as she needed proper care and support and to get away from him. She now lives in another town closer to other family, and she's so very happy and has stated many times since how frightened she is of him and how she never wants to live with him or near him. She'd not have mentioned this 6 months ago! He can't see anything good and thinks she's been kidnapped and wants to fight it, but after having gone so far to remove his negative influence, there's no going back and Mum hasn't been so happy in years.
Hugo C

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Briony Dow

Briony Dow is Director of the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) and Associate Professor of Ageing at the University of Melbourne.  She is involved in a range of research projects at NARI, mainly focusing on older people’s and carers’ mental health. She is also interested in promoting healthy ageing and understanding and preventing elder abuse. Briony is also immediate past President of the Australian Association of Gerontology.

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