Elder abuse

Key issues and emerging evidence
CFCA Paper No. 51 – June 2019


Elder abuse1 is a multifaceted and often hidden form of abuse. Based on international prevalence data, between 2-14% of older people in high- or middle-income countries are likely to be victims of abuse or neglect every year (Kaspiew, Carson, & Rhoades, 2016). This rate is likely to be higher for older people with disability and those living in institutional care settings (Yon, Ramiro-Gonzalez, Mikton, Huber, & Sethi, 2018). The term 'elder abuse' covers a range of harmful behaviours, including physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse and neglect.

While not a new phenomenon, the abuse of older adults has gained increasing recognition in Australia in recent years. Several recent public inquiries2 - including the inquiry into Protecting the Rights of Older Australians from Abuse conducted by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC; 2017) - have helped raise awareness of elder abuse in the community and highlighted the need to develop comprehensive and coordinated approaches to address it.

This paper provides an overview of elder abuse in Australia with a focus on the implications of recent research for policy and practice. It reviews recent theoretical literature to explore what it is and how it is defined, and draws on recent empirical research to examine its prevalence in community and institutional care settings, its impact and associated risk factors. The paper also summarises current initiatives and policy frameworks that aim to prevent and address elder abuse, and explores the emerging evidence for effective or promising practices that respond to the needs of older adults at risk of abuse. The paper concludes with future directions for research, policy and practice.

1 The term elder abuse is used throughout the paper to refer to the abuse or neglect of older people. However, it should be noted that in some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities the term 'elder' is a title reserved for community leaders (Office of the Public Advocate, 2005). The 'abuse or neglect of older people' is a preferred term when used in reference to older Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples.

2 Recent public inquiries that have focused, or have included a focus, on elder abuse have been conducted in New South Wales (Inquiry into Elder Abuse NSW), South Australia (Joint Committee on Matters Relating to Elder Abuse), Victoria (Royal Commission into Family Violence) and Western Australia (Inquiry into Elder Abuse). At the time of writing, a Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has been established with a final report due by 30 April 2020.