Elder abuse

Understanding issues, frameworks and responses
Research Report No. 35 – February 2016

1. Introduction

This report provides a broad analysis of the issues raised by elder abuse in the Australian context. Elder abuse - which involves the physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse or neglect of an older person by another person in a position of trust - presents a range of complex challenges for the Australian community. Although solid evidence about prevalence in Australia is lacking, the incidence of elder abuse will certainly increase as Australia's "baby boomer" generation reaches old age, with increased life expectancy meaning that the aged will, in coming years, comprise a greater proportion of the population than ever before. Fundamentally a human rights issue, responses to the management and prevention of elder abuse sit within a range of complex policy and practice structures across different levels of government, and various justice system frameworks within the private sector and across non-government organisations.

In this respect, the management of elder abuse has similar features to family and domestic violence, sexual assault and child protection. Recognition of the need for a national approach to family and domestic violence (and specifically violence against women and their children) and to child protection has seen the development in the past ten years of family and domestic violence national plans and child protection frameworks, all auspiced by the Council of Australian Governments. The structures and frameworks in the areas of ageing generally and elder abuse particularly have parallels with those that shape responses to family and domestic violence and child protection, but the range of frameworks is greater and more complex. From a policy perspective, Commonwealth, state and territory governments have intersecting responsibilities in relation to ageing, aged care and health. Local governments also have responsibility for the delivery of services to the aged. Many of the legal issues potentially raised by elder abuse - such as criminal justice responses and the legislative and organisational infrastructure that deals with matters including substituted decision making and wills and estates - are the preserve of the states and territories. A range of professions, disciplines and organisations interact with elders and their family members. Professionals from health, law, social work and the banking and financial industry potentially engage with elder abuse in their day-to-day practice, and a range of public, private and non-government organisations provide aged care services in private and public settings.

Against this complex structure and organisational background, this report provides an overview of the issues raised by elder abuse in Australia. It also draws on international material where relevant. The report first considers definitional issues in relation to elder abuse and what is known about prevalence and incidence, risk and protective factors and the dynamics surrounding disclosure and reporting. It then sets out some evidence on the demographic and socio-economic features of the Australian community that are relevant to understanding social dynamics that may influence elder abuse. Section 6 outlines some of the features of the systemic structures that intersect with elder abuse and section 7 considers prevention. Section 8 discusses international approaches.