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Barriers to seeking help for elder abuse

People have every right to report elder abuse and get help to make it stop, yet they don’t always do so. Why not?

Last updated: 26 October 2023

Many people who experience elder abuse don’t report it or seek help, according to the final report of the National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) in 2021.

Elder abuse is a real and growing issue, and it’s not acceptable. No matter how old we are, we all have the right to be treated well and not experience abuse. We also have the right to make the abuse stop, if it does happen—and that starts with telling someone about it and seeking help.

As with other social issues, reporting incidents of elder abuse helps to make the individual experience stop and raises awareness of its prevalence across society. It’s much harder for governments, seniors’ advocacy organisations, police and policy-makers to work on solving a problem if they don’t know when, where, how and to whom it’s happening. Reporting elder abuse can enable these organisations to work on stopping it happening—and preventing it happening in the future.

So, when it’s so important, why don’t people report elder abuse? The reasons may relate to personal factors, or they may be more to do with the processes and systems involved. Whatever their basis, they are often complex. Here are some of the factors that the AIFS identified.

  • Fear of what will happen next

A fear of the perceived consequences can stop people from telling someone that abuse is happening. They may be scared of being abandoned, or the perpetrator retaliating (‘paying them back’), or being ‘put into a home’ against their will. These fears might be triggered by threats the perpetrator makes, but they may also be scenarios that arise in the person’s own mind.

  • Not wanting anyone to know

In one study that the AIFS considered, more than a quarter of the participants said they didn’t report the financial or emotional abuse they’d experienced because they didn’t want people to know.

When people are mistreated, they sometimes feel ashamed and embarrassed. They may blame themselves, as if they contributed to the situation in some way, or believe they will be excluded from family or social circles if others knew about what happened. Sometimes low self-esteem is a contributing factor in thinking this way.

  • But it’s my family or my friend …

Sometimes people don’t want the perpetrator of their abuse to ‘get into trouble’ or face legal consequences, particularly when they have an emotional or family connection to the perpetrator. People may also be worried about their relationship with the perpetrator getting worse than it already is. They can be scared of the perpetrator retaliating in some way if they tell.

For example, if the perpetrator is an adult child with financial problems, the older person may worry about making those problems worse if they report the abuse. They might feel there’s a chance of losing contact with grandchildren or other family members.

  • Not knowing where to get appropriate, effective help

It’s hard for people to reach out help if they don’t know who to turn to. Sometimes they do know where to get help, but feel that those services are too busy or won’t understand or empathise with their particular needs.

Some groups of people may have to overcome a fear of authority or a reluctance to engage with criminal justice processes before they can feel able to report a situation like elder abuse. That’s not always easy to do.

These are barriers related to the social systems, so they can appear insurmountable. And if the situation involves personal barriers like feelings of embarrassment, partial blame or low self-esteem, engaging with ‘the system’ can seem even harder.

While reporting elder abuse may feel risky, scary or just too hard, it is possible. The avenues for help are there for you, and they do understand why it’s difficult to do. To find out more about what you can do, visit Responding to elder abuse

What makes seeking help easier?

Although there hasn’t been a lot of research into this, there are certain factors that appear to make it easier for some people to report abuse when others feel unable to. People are more likely to tell someone and seek help if:

  • they have positive social networks around them

  • they don’t have particularly strong emotional and/or family ties to the perpetrator

  • they experience, from the abuse, a sense of being betrayed by someone they trust

  • the abuse is physical or consists of multiple types of abuse

  • the perpetrator is known to have previously been involved with the police.

Image of an older Asian man with his left hand on his upper chest.

Stop elder abuse: report it

There are many reasons why you (or someone you know) might feel reluctant to report elder abuse. Take some time to understand what those reasons are and why you think that way. It can help you decide to think differently and enable you to tell someone.

Reporting elder abuse is the first step in making it stop, and doing so will help not only you, but also other older people who are experiencing mistreatment.


More information on elder abuse