As a news journalist for more than three decades, I’ve covered some confronting topics: political upheaval, disasters with horrendous losses of life, a serial killer, terrorism. I’ve seen the best and worst of humanity along with turning points in Australia’s history that have shocked the nation and given pause for reflection, sorrow and, most importantly, action.
Elder abuse is crying out for action, for a massive wave of awareness-raising, for decent funding, and for all of us to care and—most importantly—be curious rather than turn a ‘blind eye’.
It is not someone else’s problem; elder abuse is happening in everyone’s postcode. It happens in ‘good’ and loving families. It is not specific to certain cultural communities. We all either know someone who has been complicit in it, has suffered from it or is suffering from it, or we are at risk of it ourselves.
The National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study (2021) conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies revealed that one in six Australians has suffered psychological, physical, financial or sexual abuse or neglect. The study was statistically significant, with a participant cohort of 7,000, all of whom lived in the community, not in aged care. Imagine what an even bigger study might uncover: an even more uncomfortable truth.
A national conference on elder abuse, hosted by Elder Abuse Action Australia and Council on the Ageing (COTA) Tasmania this year, heard from speaker after speaker that ‘responding to elder abuse on a national scale is complex. It requires data to guide prevention, service design, and community-based awareness campaigns. It also requires consistency across policy frameworks and legal and administrative remedies to better support older people to take action for themselves’ (Elder Abuse Action Australia, EAAA).
You might say, ‘How would I know? These things aren’t spoken about.’ But are you listening?
Some years ago, as elder abuse was only beginning to be recognised as prevalent in Australian society and services were playing catch-up, I unwittingly helped ‘Brigid’* uncover the financial abuse of their mother that her sister had perpetrated. The mother was in the early stages of dementia but was otherwise enjoying an active, independent and social life, always happy to babysit her grandchildren. The warning signs were there: Mum, in her early 80s, was moved into a granny flat in the backyard of her home.
Brigid looked on as her older sister and her family suddenly moved into the mother’s home and started a renovation. Then there were overseas holidays and luxury items purchased. For a family once worrying about money, suddenly it wasn’t an issue.
Armed with a power of attorney, Brigid discovered that her mother’s previously mortgage-free home had been refinanced and, to her horror, hundreds of thousands of dollars—one quarter of the value of the suburban house— had been withdrawn, online transaction after transaction.
Brigid notified the bank, fearing that her mother’s future financial independence and eventual care was at stake. It created a very fractured relationship with her sister, which flowed through to the precious relationship with her mother. Her mother’s finances were placed in the hands of the Public Guardian and Trustee, the house was sold, and her mother was placed in a nursing home.
Looking back, Brigid said, ‘If you think something is wrong, involve other people; discuss it with other family members and your loved one’s friends. Ask “Have you noticed a change?” Put the pieces together.’
It is now a year since I commenced my work with the Elder Abuse Action Australia and Compass. This world-weary journalist has experienced shock and awe in equal measures. It has been my job to be curious; I have asked questions of Aboriginal Elders, the Australian Banking Association, the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils, Relationships Australia, community-based lawyers and Elder Law experts, to name a few.
With the team at the EAAA and Compass there has been a national conference. We have run webinars, which tens of thousands of people have watched and listened to, while hundreds have asked questions, hungry for information. Over and over, I have recited the number ‘1800 ELDER HELP, 1800 353 374’.
On social media, long-lost friends have got in touch about their experience of elder abuse, so yes, I know someone affected.
And so too might you.
* Name changed for privacy.