Elder abuse – lifting the lid

Jenny Barlass

Had you mentioned the notion of ‘elder abuse’ a few years ago, most people wouldn’t have had a clue what you’re referring to. Today with campaigns, a government drive and raised public awareness, it’s a phenomena that’s gaining recognition and understanding.

But just what is elder abuse? It’s greedy family members stealing elderly parents’ money or forcing them to change their will or title deeds of their home to the benefit of a son or daughter. It’s physically or mentally or even sexually harming an elderly relative, most often a frail or aged parent – from verbal bashings to withdrawal of rights to downright neglect.

In a society that’s meant to value, respect and care for its elderly, it’s a truly shocking phenomenon across Australia, and not one that’s new. It’s always been there but, like domestic violence 20 years ago, only now is it starting to get recognition as a huge problem.

What does elder abuse look like?

Elder abuse can also be, according to the Elder Abuse Helpline, being threatened with eviction or moving to a nursing home, stopped from seeing your family or friends or attending regular activities, denied the right to make your own decisions, treated like a child, your pension skimmed or money taken from your bank account, belongings sold without permission, your money or property taken improperly through the misuse of an Enduring Power of Attorney, being forced to change your Will, being denied access to, or control of your own funds, not having your physical, medical or emotional needs met, slapping, hitting, pushing, shaking, shoving or restraining, inappropriate physical or chemical restraints, harm created by over or under-medicating or someone making unwanted sexual approaches or behaving indecently towards you.

Who’s helping and how?

There are no direct local services in Hornsby and Ku-ring-gai as yet. The first place to call if you’re being abused or suspect someone you know is being abused is the Elder Abuse Helpline on 1800 628 221 or the Seniors Rights Service on 1800 424 079.

Since it started in 2013 to the end of December last year, the Helpline has received more than 8,640 calls, 7,180 which related to suspected abuse. It has access to legal, financial, counselling, medical, police, health, housing and Centrelink services and referrals. For more general advice on where to get help, contact FACS on 133 677 where you will be put in touch with the best service provider for your situation.

“Elder abuse has always been around,” says Christine Mattey, a Senior Consultant on the Elder Abuse Helpline, “it’s just that people are now living longer. Our aging population is now more prepared to speak up for themselves. Also we have moved away from families all living under one roof and looking out for one another.”

She described a couple of elder abuse scenarios that we may be vaguely familiar with but which now have a name – inheritance impatience – and we can get what that is – but who’s heard of inheritance conservation?

“This is where a child or family member learns they’ll be a beneficiary in a will and so doesn’t spend the money on providing a dependent parent with the proper care, shelter, heating or sustenance to maximise their inheritance.

“This kind of abuse is truly shocking and cruel. The lid needs lifting on this and we need to see the taboos around the subject broken so then we can start talking  about this issue as a huge societal issue.”

What’s being done locally

For World Elder Abuse Awareness Month in June State Member for Ku-ring-gai Alister Henskens hosted morning tea at the Electorate Office in Wahroonga,  joined by local retirement centre managers from The Cotswolds Village and The Landings both in North Turramurra and Rohini Village in Turramurra, and Michele Bell, Chief Executive Officer of the Ku-ring-gai Neighbourhood Centre.

Mr Henskens discussed with them what steps can be taken to ensure that they remain safe and connected. “Stories of elder abuse are both disturbing and sad,” he said. “It is even more distressing that so often the perpetrators of the abuse are close family members.

“The consensus emerging from the morning tea was that there is nothing more powerful than regular and open communication to ensure the safety of our senior citizens, to assure them that they are being heard and to provide a clear understanding of the options and help available to them.

“I encourage everyone in Ku-ring-gai to educate themselves on the signs of elder abuse and know who to contact if they suspect somebody they know may be suffering, “ said Mr Henskens. “Just as importantly, I counsel any older person in Ku-ring-gai who is suffering from abuse to reach out for support – help is just a phone call away.”

What’s the Government doing?

First there was an Elder Abuse Inquiry held by the Federal Government to gather evidence, start to build policy and potentially bring about law reform, as well as promote transparency by making the information public. Now the NSW government is working with the Federal Government and other states and territories on developing the National Plan for Elder Abuse which is aimed at addressing issues at the national level.

There’s also something called the Elder Abuse Dashboard, where data will be publicly available and updated annually, via the Family and Community Services’ website. “The actual prevalence of elder abuse is an issue and Governments are currently working together to identify how many and who exactly needs further protection,” said a spokesman for Tanya Davies, Minister for Ageing.

“Like with other ‘hidden’ forms of abuse, such as domestic violence, under-reporting means that agency data in itself cannot indicate the prevalence of abuse in the community. This data will enable us to better understand the nature and prevalence of elder abuse in our community.”

Margaret loses her house and a lot more

Margaret was 79 when the healthcare professional from Beecroft lost her house. Three years earlier her son and daughter in law had moved into the her three bedroom home on the promise they would borrow from the bank and add on an extra bedroom and bathroom before their first baby arrived.

“I put their names on the title deeds to the house without getting any legal advice which looking back now was naive, but when it’s your family you think you can trust them,” says Margaret. “They promised me $500,000 which was about half the house’s value if I ever needed to move to residential care. In the meantime I got sick and I think they thought I was going to die. Suddenly their behaviour changed and they started acting as if the house was theirs. For example they went mad when I had a roof added to the back porch when they were away for a few days. I had lived there for 30 years and didn’t feel I had to consult them when I made changes.

“This acrimony built up over a few years – I hardly recognised my son the way he was behaving, becoming abusive and rude. It was so upsetting.”

After two years of trauma with them, she’d had enough, bidding her beloved home goodbye and moving into a modest one bedroom retirement village unit.

“My son and daughter in law gave me $300,000 but it was less than what I was due and when my solicitor asked them for the rest, they denied they had made a verbal agreement over the $500,000. Then I heard about the Elder Abuse Hotline one day on the radio and it literally changed my life around.

“They said I’d been financially and emotionally abused and referred me to a solicitor at Justice Connect. She helped me get another $60,000 from them though it took another year. But that last payment improved my standard of living and means I can still run my car. We haven’t spoken for three years now, I am so sad about it all and I don’t get to see my grandchildren, though I have a happy life with new friends where I am now.

“My advice to other seniors: never let your kids move in with you and never make any financial agreements without putting them in writing and getting legal advice.”

Who does it: perpetrators of abuse

Daughter 24%*
Son 25%
Grandchildren 3%
Sibling 2%
Son-in-law 1%
Daughter-in-law 1%
Other relative 4%
Paid worker 6%
Friend 6.5%
Unknown 6.5%
Other 5%
Neighbour 4%

Types of abuse: (sometimes there is more than one type of abuse): sexual 1%, physical 17%, financial 39%, psychological 58%, neglect 18%.

Who calls the Helpline? 14% Concerned other (e.g. neighbour), 18% older person (experiencing abuse), 22% professional, 46% family member.

Latest figure on the number of calls to date: as of 30 December 2017, the Helpline has received more than 8,640 calls. Of these calls, over 7,180 related to suspected abuse.

*STATS from NSW elder Abuse Helpline & Resource Unit from 2016 to 2017

Where to go for help

People who witness, suspect or experience abuse are urged to call the NSW Elder Abuse Helpline & Resource Unit on 1800 628 221 or visit www.elderabusehelpline.gov.au for information, support and referrals.

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