What elder abuse looks like during a pandemic – (BPA Op-ed)

The events of the last few months have made World Elder Abuse Awareness Day 2021 more important and relevant than ever in Victoria. Up to 14 percent of older people are likely to experience elder abuse in Australia. With the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, a new layer has been added to the complexity of this form of abuse.

The movement restrictions saw many older Victorians experiencing significant social isolation or greater dependence on family members whether by having to move in with them, support them financially or rely on them for food delivery. The uncertainty and stress over the past few months has also taken a toll on many households and this increased the older person’s vulnerability to various forms of abuse.
The risk is higher for women and those living with a disability.

Dominique Horne, a Family Consultant in Elder Abuse at Better Place Australia, tells the story of an older woman who moved in with her adult child during the pandemic. Prior to this, she had been living an active social life and had access to community services.

When services reduced due to COVID-19 contact restrictions, she was cut off from social interactions and her support network. This exacerbated her depression and anxiety, which caused conflict with her child who threatened to withhold finances and restrict her contacts. The escalating social isolation and psychological abuse distressed the older person substantially.

“You might think it’s reasonable for an older relative to remain isolated for their own safety but you also have to be mindful that they still require support,” Ms Horne says. “It’s not just about being physically safe; it’s also about being emotionally, socially, financially and psychologically safe.”

The CEO of Better Place Australia, Serge Sardo, responded, “We need to be more aware especially during this time when it’s harder to check in and monitor the wellbeing of older people in our community. Why elder abuse often goes undetected is because of the subtlety of the action, a reluctance to get the perpetrator into trouble or a heavy reliance on the perpetrator for financial guidance.”

Ms Horne states, “Being a family member doesn’t entitle you to take their money whether through coercion or without their knowledge. It doesn’t make it right to keep a vulnerable person shut in one room all day even if it’s for their safety. Any action that takes away the rights of the older person is not acceptable and may constitute elder abuse.”

Better Place Australia has spent the last four years creating better awareness and understanding of elder abuse in Victoria. In 2017, it set up the Respecting Elders services aimed at supporting older people who are experiencing or at risk of elder abuse and to resolve conflict with family or carers.

Since then, Better Place Australia has received state funding to provide counselling, financial counselling and mediation services in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Integrated Model of Care (IMOC), an elder abuse service within the health services sector, which includes hospitals and community care services. The success of this model led to further state funding to provide an elder abuse prevention service within The Orange Door locations as they progressively roll out.

The Orange Door is a free service for adults, children and young people who are experiencing or have experienced family violence and families who need extra support.

Better Place Australia currently provides Elder Abuse family consultants to work in The Orange Door hubs in Bayside Peninsula, Morwell, Inner Gippsland and North East Melbourne. This service will soon be available at the Barwon and Western hubs. “Our aim is to support older people in the community and to share our skills and knowledge with other practitioners so they’re equipped to respond to elder abuse situations on their own,” Ms Horne says.


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