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Responding to grandparent alienation as a form of elder abuse by Relationships Australia

Addressing grandparent alienation, along with other forms of elder abuse, is a crucial priority.

Last updated: October 7, 2021

Loneliness, loss and grief are common emotions for the many older Australians who face loss of contact with their grandchildren – a little understood form of elder abuse, which often accompanies a range of complex family relationship dynamics. Left unresolved, the withdrawal of meaningful contact with grandchildren, known as “grandparent alienation”, can have lasting harmful impacts on multiple generations within a single family unit. As a result, addressing grandparent alienation, along with other forms of elder abuse, is a crucial priority.

Relationships Australia knows this and is working to reduce grandparent alienation. In 2016 we started a new service that supports older people looking for help in their family relationships. More Australians need this kind of help now, as there are more older people in Australia, they face emerging health and social issues, and their family structures can be complicated.

What is known about elder abuse

In 2017 the Australian Law Reform Commission reported on elder abuse in Australia. The report was called Elder Abuse — A National Legal Response, and it recommended 43 actions for dealing with the problem. In 2019, the Australian Government made a National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians. The Government, along with the state and territory governments, then started trying out different services to deal with elder abuse. Relationships Australia helps to provide some of these services.

Before the report, not much was known about elder abuse, and there are still things we don’t know. The Australian Government has asked the Australian Institute of Family Studies to find out how common elder abuse is. This is a great step, as it will help not only Australia but also other countries to understand more about how elder abuse happens and how widespread it is.

What we do already know is that there are many different forms of elder abuse and that it affects older Australians and their families in many different ways. We know that the harmful actions can be verbal, financial, even physical and sexual. But we are seeing more and more that the harm can be emotional, and it’s usually coming from difficult things in family relationships.

We already know that many older Australians find joy, strength and comfort in their family relationships. But it’s clear that these relationships can also cause tension and conflict, and that sometimes the conflict ends up with family members deciding to keep away from their older relatives. When this separation happens between grandparents and their grandchildren, it can be particularly harmful and upsetting and can have long-term effects on everyone involved.

Preventing elder abuse

Often, elder abuse is only discovered when the older family members begin to need medical or social assistance. By then it may have been happening for a long time, and the things that caused it may have been present across the generations of the family. So to stop the elder abuse, we need to change these underlying issues in the family.

Single responses when the abuse happens, like calling the police or getting legal help with the incident, don’t stop elder abuse long-term. To do that, we need to understand the relationships the older person has with their family members, because they actually want their family relationships to improve. These relationships are important to them for their safety and well-being—and the joys and benefits of being involved with their grandchildren are especially important. So longer-term solutions are needed.

Relationships Australia’s response to grandparent alienation

Older people need to be able speak up, and be heard, to resolve grandparent alienation. To make this possible, Relationships Australia develops service plans that suit each person’s own circumstances and can involve everyone in the family. This is because the underlying causes of elder abuse are experienced by everyone involved, not just the older person. We use a combination of different services, such as mediation, counselling and case management, to try to reduce the risks and effects of elder abuse.

Often, when older people do seek help, the family relationships aren’t yet ready to have outsiders involved in a way that creates lasting change. We understand this, and our service people can work with family members to help them become ready for mediation. For example, clients can try a recommended strategy for a few weeks or a month before deciding to continue with it. This ‘trial’ approach gives everyone time to establish safe, respectful communication and to remember how important each person’s relationship with an older person is. The whole family is then better able to start mediation together.

As well, Relationship Australia’s service providers help families have conversations by using the right training and experience for the situation. Family members may have suffered past traumas, poor mental health, or problems with drugs or alcohol. Sometimes, there are cultural reasons why these conversations are hard to have, and it’s very important to understand those reasons. Our service providers can work with the family to help re-establish supporting, caring relationships that allow grandparent alienation to be dealt with.

Tackling grandparent alienation, as a form of elder abuse, will continue to be an important part of Relationships Australia services. We will find new and effective ways for our clients and services to work together, because family conflict affects different people differently. Our aim is not to fix single instances of elder abuse, but to make safe and healthy family relationships possible. Doing this will prevent further abuse and restore positive and supportive contact between grandparents and their grandchildren, for everyone’s benefit.

Find out more

Read the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report Elder Abuse - A National Legal Response

Read the National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians

Visit Relationship Australia’s website and find out about our Senior Relationship Services

The Relationships Australia federation is a leading provider of secular, not-for-profit services, helping individuals, families and communities to achieve and maintain safe, positive and respectful relationships. Relationships Australia services are for all members of the community, regardless of such matters as religious belief, age, gender, sexual orientation, lifestyle choice, cultural background or economic circumstances. We offer counselling, family dispute resolution, mental health services, and a range of family and community support and education programs