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“Helping more people regain their dignity and independence”
Stronger commitment is needed to stem the rise in elder abuse
The mental health of Victorians continues to be acutely challenged. Multiple and prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns brought a social disconnection that many still find unnatural and painful. One group that has felt the anguish of isolation more sharply than others is older people.
Whether living in an aged care facility or their long term family home, many older people have had their daily lives disrupted by the pandemic. This, in turn, has heavily impacted their mental health. Even when COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were briefly lifted, many of them were reluctant to re-engage with the wider community because of their vulnerability.
The severity of their isolation led to emerging psychological issues including stress, anxiety, loneliness and financial pressures. It also forced them to rely heavily on caregivers and family members which removed their independence and put a strain on relationships.
For some older people it got worse, as their caregivers experienced similar emotional issues. In many cases, adult children and grandchildren who lost their jobs returned to the family home. As relationships became more complex and emotions grew volatile, the older person became a convenient outlet for unleashing frustrations. The risk of family members perpetrating abuse against the older person increased.
Some elder abuse is close to home
In some cases, the family member became a perpetrator, curtailing the older person’s independence and agency by terminating in-home services, practical supports and manipulating social isolation. Enquiring family members on the outside would be told ‘Mum is not up to seeing you today She’s worried about catching Covid”. The inability to access these vital services caused great stress and social disconnection meant significant distress to the older person. Living behind closed doors lead to the abuse being undetected.
“An increase in abuse since the pandemic began”
Family Consultants have reported an increase of up to 30% in elder abuse cases on a year-on-year basis in our service areas. Based on our Elder Abuse Support Services data, session numbers per client have almost doubled from 3.8 to 6.5 over the past 18 months indicating how complex cases were becoming.
While interacting with this cohort, our Family Consultants observed new themes, patterns and issues created by the pandemic. One of them is ageism, which is identified as a precursor to elder abuse.
A 2018 study by the joint Council of the Ageing and Senior Rights Victoria identified multiple stereotypes that dehumanise and infantilise older people and perpetuate the myth that they possess diminished mental and physical capacity. These ageist stereotypes are often used to conceal elder abuse.
What alarms us just as much as these findings is that the current level of support for elder abuse prevention isn’t reflective of the increasing demand for this service. We urgently need to see a pick-up in the two key areas that will make the biggest difference – awareness-raising and elder abuse support funding.
Our data clearly shows that elder abuse is a steadily rising phenomenon, and one that can’t be tackled through funded pilot projects alone. We need to see a stronger commitment by state and federal decision-makers and a concerted effort to stamp out this social ill.
We’ll continue to pursue better means of facilitating social connection for older people, especially those living alone, by introducing voice-activated trials and more frequent house visits. We have an exciting community research project to gain knowledge about ageist attitudes in the community. We intend to keep driving conversations about ageism and to seek greater funding. Our ultimate aim is to play a significant role in stemming the rise of elder abuse and helping more people regain their rightful independence, agency and dignity.
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