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Elder Abuse can take many forms, including physical, emotional, sexual and financial – and perpetrators are often the people closest to us. Now growing international awareness is prompting policy makers to examine how we can better protect vulnerable older people.

Each year, 15 June marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, intended to raise awareness of elder abuse internationally and highlight ways to challenge it. So how do Australian laws respond to elder abuse, and how can they better protect older Australians? This is a question currently being looked at by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), an an independent Commonwealth agency that, at the request of the Attorney-General, reviews Commonwealth laws and provides recommendations about how to improve Australia’s laws and make sure that they remain effective and appropriate in a changing world.

A 2011 study by the University of Western Australia and Advocare calculated that around 4.6 percent of older Australians are subjected to some form of elder abuse. As the population ages, the rate of abuse of older people is expected to increase significantly. This could mean a very large number of people being exposed to some form of elder abuse. As such, it is fast becoming a serious social problem.

The World Health Organisation describes elder abuse as ‘a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person’. Elder abuse can be physical, sexual or psychological, however the most common form of abuse appears to be financial abuse.

Older people may be abused by any number of people – service providers, carers, friends or strangers. A 2016 report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) suggests that most abuse is actually perpetrated by family members, for example, where adult children take advantage of elderly parents to access their money, house or savings, for their own use and benefit.

Older women are the most common victims of financial abuse, usually by a male child, and are also the most susceptible to family violence.

Older people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse, Indigenous and LGBTQI communities, older people with disability, and those living in regional and remote areas, may be more vulnerable to abuse.

Elder abuse can be hard to identify and even harder to respond to. Shame, fear, social isolation, cognitive impairment, physical and emotional dependency are all factors that might hold elderly people back from reporting abuse. Elderly people are often particularly reluctant to report abuse when it occurs within the family, because it often means reporting a family member to the police – the key agency to respond to an accusation of elder abuse.

Older people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, to make their own decisions and choices, to live in a safe environment and to access the protections available to other adults in the community. The ALRC’s task is to focus on Commonwealth laws and consider how these can better protect older people. In particular, we will be looking at laws in the areas of financial institutions, superannuation, social security, aged care and health.

In doing this, it is important that we balance the rights of older people to their own autonomy with the community’s duty to protect the vulnerable.

Throughout the Elder Abuse Inquiry, we are consulting around Australia with organisations and individuals who work in these areas. The ALRC will release a consultation paper in June to coincide with World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

This Issues Paper will set out in more detail the issues we are looking at and will call for submissions to seek more information from the public. We urge people and organisations with experience in this area to make submissions. This is an important early stage in our work towards proposing how laws could be changed to better protect older people from abuse.

You can find out more about the ALRC Elder Abuse Inquiry, subscribe to enews, and access the Issues Paper here.

The ALRC has until May 2017 to prepare its final report. At the 2016 National Elder Abuse Conference, Attorney-General Senator Brandis noted: ‘Our social, economic and legal frameworks must support older Australians so as to enable them fully to enjoy their freedoms and exercise their free and informed choices.’

The ALRC’s work is a step towards realising this goal.

If you or someone you know is experiencing elder abuse, support services are available. Click here.

For more on the Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into Elder Abuse, click here.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2016 edition of 50 something magazine. 


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