Older people

‘Elder abuse’ is the term commonly used to describe violence and abuse experienced by older people over the age of 65, and includes behaviours constituting domestic and family violence. Evidence about prevalence in Australia is lacking, though based on international indications, it is likely that between 2% and 10% of older Australians experience elder abuse in any given year, with the prevalence of neglect possibly higher. The available evidence suggests that most elder abuse is intra-familial and intergenerational, with mothers most often being the subject of abuse by sons, although abuse by daughters is also common, and fathers are victims too. Financial abuse appears to be the most common form of abuse experienced by elderly people. Psychological abuse appears slightly less common than financial abuse, and seems to frequently co-occur with financial abuse, suggesting a pattern of behaviour analogous to grooming in the sexual abuse context.

Domestic and family violence against older people in a relationship may sometimes be characterised as ‘spousal abuse grown old’, following the typical pattern of perpetrators being predominantly male. US research indicates that, as people age and stressors such as ill health increase, gendered approaches to caregiving may become more entrenched, resulting in men being more likely to control or coerce their female partners, for example forcing her to shower or restraining her while he mows the lawn.

Older people may experience abuse in different ways, for example:

  • Financial abuse may include misuse of property or money; undue influence over decisions about wills, property or money; theft; forced or refused entry into a nursing home; financial dependence and exploitation
  • Psychological abuse may include humiliation, insults, intimidation, excessive control, or being treated like a child
  • Neglect may include ‘passive neglect’ where older people are left alone, isolated, or forgotten; or ‘active neglect’ where older people are denied the support and care necessary for daily living
  • Social abuse may include a failure to provide support and care, or social isolation, for example denying access to the telephone, not permitting visitors or making visitors feel unwelcome or fearful
  • Physical abuse may include being hit, sexually assaulted, burned or physically restrained, or having aids and equipment removed such as walking sticks or spectacles
  • Medical abuse may include the inappropriate use of constraints, the mal-administration of medications and prescriptions, or the denial of medical consultation.

Certain factors may make older people more vulnerable to domestic and family violence. For example, women tend to live longer, are less likely to have access to superannuation, and their circumstances and experiences as they age may not be collectively understood or responded to by the range of agencies and support services that operate across multiple sectors. Further risk factors include: ageism; dependency; family dynamics and living arrangements; an adult child in difficulty (such as marital breakdown, business failure, mental heath issues or addictions); a strong sense of entitlement felt by adult children in relation to the older person’s assets; gender; financial or economic hardship; low financial literacy; carer stress; dementia, or cognitive or communication impairments; social isolation; substance misuse; Aboriginality; and mental or psychological ill health.

Older people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to financial abuse and exploitation due to their likely dependency on others—often children and other family members—for help with translation and interpretation and management of financial matters. There may also be cultural expectations about how an older person is cared for in a family that increase their vulnerability, for example the eldest son may be bound by cultural practices to house or care for an aged mother, and yet he may also be abusive.

Older people may also face a range of barriers to reporting domestic and family violence, thus compounding their vulnerability. Some of these barriers include: diminished cognitive capacity; mental, physical or sensory disability; restricted mobility; lack of awareness of what constitutes abuse; lack of knowledge of their rights or resources; social isolation or fear of alienation; the need to preserve a relationship; dependency; stigma and shame; poor literacy and language skills; religious, cultural or generational beliefs and practices; fear of reprisal; and perceived or actual lack of options or access to services.