Elder abuse reports are rising (ABC News)
The abuse that 81-year-old Francene Jacques experienced began with a series of small acts. One relative would complain about how Francene was dressed, with comments like, “You’re not going out like that”, or “Dress your age”. They’d criticise her choice of hairstyle. Francene says the behaviour was about control, and it wasn’t only emotional. “I did not have access to any money that I wanted… I would have to ask for [it],” she says.
Over years, Francene felt she was “surrendering to this other person”, while her self-esteem was deteriorating. She is among one in six older Australians who have experienced elder abuse. And Age Discrimination Commissioner Kay Patterson says the number of people reporting it is on the rise. “It [Elder abuse] can start very small or it can even lead, sadly, to total neglect [or] cases of murder,” Dr Patterson tells ABC RN’s Life Matters. She says there are “vital steps” people can take to help put a stop to it.
What is elder abuse and why does it happen?
Elder abuse can come in many forms, including physical or financial, or through legal exploitation and misuse of powers. “Sometimes people start off just by taking a bit of money out of mum’s account to pay for petrol and things because they’re doing, or they think they’re doing, more than their brother or sister who lives interstate or who doesn’t care as much about their parent,” Dr Patterson explains.
“And then it escalates into taking a bit more money. People sometimes have expectations that, ‘Well, I’m going to inherit this money anyway’.” Sometimes a family member may not understand how upsetting their behaviour is for the older person experiencing it. Eighty-three-year-old Sarah’s* bank account took a hit, “but it also hurt” emotionally, when she experienced financial elder abuse. It involved a relative borrowing from her, and failing to repay, sums of money over a period of 30 years. She felt let down by someone she should have been able to trust.
There are many reasons why somebody may treat an older person in a way that’s inappropriate, Dr Patterson says. Ageism — which she describes as “the least understood ‘ism'” — is one driving force. “We just have these strange attitudes to older people. We have this view that people are near the end of their life, they don’t need as much money, they’re less important. I just think ageism is rife in our community, and is the basis of a whole lot of things like elder abuse and discrimination in the workplace. Ageism is something we have to fight.”
‘You just keep quiet’
Elder abuse often flies under the radar. “People feel embarrassed, they don’t want to get involved in somebody else’s business. The next-door neighbour might think, ‘That son is being terrible to his mother. I hear him screaming at her all the time [but] I don’t want to get involved,'” Dr Patterson says. It can also pass quietly because of a sense of shame those experiencing the abuse might feel in speaking up.
“My biggest fear was that if I went to somebody for help, they would see me as weak for allowing somebody else to control me in this way,” Francene says.
Dr Patterson says this is a common concern among victim-survivors of elder abuse. People think, ‘What have I done that my [family member] is behaving like this towards me?’ Shame is the thing that really hinders people from seeking help [but] it’s nothing to be shameful about.” Sarah believes there’s an attitude particular to people her age that can also get in the way of seeking help. “We’re a generation where we kept our heads high and didn’t ask [for help]: you didn’t do anything about it, you just keep quiet,” she says. “Well, I would advocate to people now, please don’t [do that].
“Once you talk to legal aid or the elder abuse helpline, it’s private and confidential, and nothing is changed without your say-so. That’s something that I took very seriously because I don’t live in a big town and sometimes you’re frightened that something might come out.”
‘Dragging our heels’ on legislation
Educating people about plans they can put in place to prevent or stop elder abuse is hindered by rules that differ between the states and territories, Dr Patterson says. in 2017, the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended a harmonisation of powers of attorney across the country, something Dr Patterson has spent years arguing for. And yet, she says Australia is “dragging our heels”. “The attorneys-general across Australia all say, ‘Yes, it’s a good idea’, but it’s very, very slow. It’s moving at a glacial pace and I really wish it would speed up.”
Dr Patterson stresses one point to politicians. “Get on with it. Older people need your help.” In the meantime, to ensure that — young or old — your wishes are carried out, especially in the event that you lose capacity, planning ahead is “absolutely vital” and “the best way of looking after ourselves”, Dr Patterson says. “People need to have their documents in place. Because you should decide who decides for you if something happens.”
Have in place your wills, powers of attorney, advance care directives and other documents about what you want to happen if you fall ill and can’t make decisions for yourself, she recommends. And remember that you can change your mind and revoke the power of attorney you’ve elected, and change it to someone else.
‘Help is out there’
Francene, who believes emotional abuse is a misunderstood form of elder abuse, has distanced herself from her abusive relative and says it’s “the best decision I’ve ever made in my life”. Francene Jacques says emotional elder abuse isn’t well understood. (ABC News: Michael Brooks) Support from her strong social network has helped her to “build up my feeling of worth in myself”.
Sarah took action against her abuser about a year ago, after she says, “I’d hit rock bottom”. She contacted legal aid and the Elder Abuse Helpline and found that, once she started asking for it, support was easy to access. “Help’s out there. It’s absolutely amazing what’s available for us,” she says. “I would say [to anyone experiencing elder abuse] please talk to your doctor, your counsellor, the police. Don’t leave it too long to take that first step. Because the help is out there.”
Francene echoes her point. “I will actually say that anybody that feels that they are under this sort of [abusive] control, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You will not be considered weak [or considered to be] not telling the truth.”
*Names changed to protect privacy
Integrated Model of Care (IMOC)
As of August 2023, the Victorian Government is defunding 70% of the specialist elder abuse specialist positions in Victoria. For referrers and enquiries about the integrated model of care (IMOC) service ceasing mid-August 2023, Better Place Australia can provide Elder Abuse Specialist Services through Orange Doors in certain local government areas. Click here for more