Elder abuse

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

Older people in Australia

In Australia, older people are generally defined as aged 65 years or older (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2016b), though some definitions of elder abuse define older people as aged 60 years and older (Kaspiew et al., 2016).3 For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who have a lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous Australians, older people are typically defined as 45-50 years and older (Kaspiew et al., 2016).

In 2017, an estimated 3.8 million people were aged 65 years or older in Australia. In 2016, an estimated 124,000 Indigenous Australians were aged 50 and over (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2019).

Life expectancy and an ageing population

The proportion of people aged 65 and over has grown steadily over the last century from 5% in 1926 to 15% in 2016, and is projected to rise to 22% by 2056 (Figure 1; AIHW, 2017b). Following this trend, people aged 85 years and older represented 2% of the population in 2017 and are predicted to increase to 4.4% in 2057 (AIHW, 2017a).

Life expectancies for people born in Australia during 2014-16 were 80.4 years for males and 84.6 years for females. In the same period, people aged 65 years could expect to live longer than the average life expectancy; males had an expected age at death of 84.6 years and females had an expected age at death of 87.3 years. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples born between 2015-17, life expectancies were approximately eight or nine years lower than non-Indigenous Australians: 71.6 years for Indigenous males and 75.6 years for Indigenous females (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2019).

Figure 1: Australia's ageing population: Proportion of Australian population aged 65 years and older (%)

Figure 1: Australia’s ageing population: Proportion of Australian population aged 65 years and older (%)

Source: AIHW (2017b)

Box 1: Australia's ageing population and elder abuse

It is hard to talk about elder abuse in Australia in its broader context without reference to Australia's ageing population. As the proportion of people aged 65 years and over increases over time, the overall population of older people vulnerable to abuse is expected to increase with it.

This observation can be double-edged. On the one hand, an ageing population raises important issues relating to workforce participation, its impact on economic outcomes and the provision of social support and other services that respond to the diverse needs of older Australians, including the costs associated with their care and protection (Productivity Commission, 2013). On the other hand, this focus can exacerbate existing intergenerational conflicts and further contribute to ageist attitudes that view older people as a burden to society (Dow & Joosten, 2012; Harbison et al., 2012). As discussed in this paper, emerging evidence suggests that attitudes that devalue the role and status of older people can negatively impact their health and wellbeing and may contribute to their risk of abuse by others (ALRC, 2017; Hirst et al., 2016). It is important, therefore, to balance these considerations; to take seriously the social and economic challenges of an ageing population while avoiding disempowering older people through negative stereotypes and social exclusion.

Diverse backgrounds

Older people in Australia are a diverse population, representing different cultural backgrounds, lifestyles and abilities. In 2016, more than a third (37%) of older people were born overseas, mainly from European (67% of those born overseas) and Asian backgrounds (16%) (ABS, 2016a). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had a younger age profile than non-Indigenous people with 4.8% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population aged 65 and older compared to 16% for the non-Indigenous population (ABS, 2016a).


An increasing proportion of older Australians are in paid employment. In early 2018, 13% of Australians aged 65 years and older participated in the workforce compared to 8% of older Australians in 2006 (AIHW, 2018). A large proportion of older Australians receive a government-funded age pension, with 66% of all people aged 65 and older receiving at least a partial age pension in 2017 (AIHW, 2018).


Older people are much more likely to have a disability or a severe or profound core activity limitation than younger people. In 2015, an estimated 18% of Australia's total population had a disability and 5.8% had a severe or profound core activity limitation (AIHW, 2017a). In comparison, around half (50.7%) of all older people had a disability during the same year and 36.4% of those adults had a severe or profound activity limitation (ABS, 2016b).


Like disability, the risk of dementia increases with age. While there is no nationally consistent data on the diagnosis of dementia, it is estimated that about 365,000 people in Australia were living with dementia in 2017, with the vast majority (99%) of those aged 60 years or older (AIHW, 2017a). Based on AIHW (2017a) analysis, almost all people with dementia have a disability and increasingly need assistance from others as dementia progresses. In 2015, around half (51%) of people with dementia lived in households, while just under half (49%) lived in care accommodation (AIHW, 2017a).

Living arrangements

In 2015, most older people (94.8%) lived in private households with only a small proportion (5.2%) living in care accommodation, such as residential aged care (ABS, 2016b). For people living in households, about a quarter (27%) lived alone - with women (35%) more likely than men (18%) to live alone (AIHW, 2017a).

Many older people need assistance with a range of daily activities, such as reading and writing, communication, mobility, transport and self-care (AIHW, 2017a). Older people's need for assistance also increases with age, with around 22% of people aged 65-69 years and 89% of those aged 90 years and older needing assistance with activities (AIHW, 2017a). In 2015, most assistance was provided by informal carers (73%), followed by formal carers (60%) (AIHW, 2017a).

While disability, dementia and the need for assistance all increase with age, these factors are not intrinsic to ageing itself. As discussed in this paper, it is important to recognise that while disability, dependence on others and dementia can represent vulnerability for older people, it is the combination of other factors, such as poor quality relationships or low social support, that can exacerbate the risk of abuse for older people.

3 In this paper, 'older people' refers to people aged 65 years and over, unless otherwise stated.