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Protecting the Rights of Older Australians

What is elder abuse?

The Australian Government is committed to supporting measures to reduce the prevalence, severity and impact of elder abuse. Through the Attorney-General's Department, the government is working collaboratively with all state and territory governments to develop nationally coordinated responses to the emerging problem of the abuse of older people.

Abuse of older people is a complex issue, which can challenge views about the nature of families and the status of older people in our community. Often the abuse is caused by someone who is trusted by the older person, such as a family member, friend, professional, or paid caregiver. Abuse can occur in a number of settings, including the older person's home. Sometimes, both the victim and perpetrator do not recognise that what is occurring is abuse. Abuse affects both men and women, and people from all walks of life.

At present in Australia, rather than one commonly accepted definition, there are a range of definitions and frameworks to describe the abuse of older people. Two commonly used definitions include:

Any act occurring within a relationship where there is an implication of trust, which results in harm to an older person. Abuse may be physical, sexual, financial, psychological, social and/or neglect (Australian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, 1999).

Elder abuse is 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. It can be of various forms: physical, psychological/ emotional, sexual, financial or simply reflect intentional or unintentional neglect … Elder abuse is a violation of human rights and a significant cause of injury, illness, lost productivity, isolation and despair (World Health Organisation, Toronto Declaration on the Global Prevention of Elder Abuse 2002).

Elder abuse in Australia

Around 15 per cent of our population is aged over 65 – that's around 3.7 million people. Australia has an ageing population and this number is predicted to rise to 23 per cent of the population by 2055.

While there is no established level of prevalence of elder abuse in Australia, studies in the United Kingdom and Canada have found that between 2 per cent to 8 per cent of people aged over 65 experience one form of abuse in any one year.

Evidence also suggests that most abuse of older people is intra-familial and intergenerational, making it challenging and complex to address.

The response to elder abuse

As part of the Australian Government's 2016 election commitment, $15 million was provided to implement Our Plan to Protect the Rights of Older Australians.

The funding is:

  • supporting implementation of the National Plan on Elder Abuse
  • supporting the development of an Elder Abuse Knowledge Hub
  • strengthening our understanding of the nature and prevalence of elder abuse in Australia, through targeted research activities.

As part of the 2018-19 More Choices for a Longer Life package, the government provided an additional $22 million in funding over the next four years to tackle elder abuse. The funding will increase specialist front-line services to support older people and their families seeking help. It includes support for specialist elder abuse units, family counselling and mediation services, and advancing health-justice partnerships. It will also support the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission's Age Discrimination Commissioner in tackling ageism.

It is a further priority for the government to work with states and territories to reform enduring powers of attorney arrangements. This initiative is currently the subject of discussion with states and territories.

National Plan on Elder Abuse

On 20 February 2018, the Attorney-General announced that the Council of Attorneys-General (CAG) had agreed that a National Plan on Elder Abuse be developed. CAG has asked to review a draft plan by the end of 2018.

CAG has asked the officer-level Working Group on Protecting the Rights of Older Australians to develop the plan. This  includes engaging with the community sector, business and other stakeholders.

The plan is intended to be a framework for action over the next four years, identifying priority reform areas against a set of goals. Its purpose is to outline coordinated action across all Australian jurisdictions.

The plan will have five goals:

  • promoting the autonomy and agency of older people
  • addressing ageism and promoting community understanding of elder abuse
  • progressing national consistency
  • safeguarding at-risk older people and improving responses
  • building an evidence base.

The plan will complement, not replace, Commonwealth and state and territory policies about ageing and elder abuse. It will include strategies that support existing activities and new reforms that are underway in jurisdictions, community organisations and the business sector.

Elder Abuse Knowledge Hub

To address key findings of the Australian Law Reform Commission Report 131: Elder Abuse – a national legal response, the government is developing an Elder Abuse Knowledge Hub. It will provide a central point of information for older people, their families, carers and supporters, to help them resolve their problems or find relevant services.

The department is working with Elder Abuse Action Australia, a peak national body that works in elder abuse prevention and support services, to undertake a feasibility study of the hub.

National Research Program

The government is focused on strengthening the evidence base about the nature and prevalence of elder abuse in Australia. In 2017, the department funded the Australian Institute of Family Studies, in collaboration with the National Ageing Research Institute, the Social Research Centre (ANU), and the Social Policy Research Centre (UNSW) to

  • develop a national definition of elder abuse for research purposes
  • develop and test research tools and investigate data and information in existing data sets.

This work continues.

Elder Abuse Service Trials

The government has committed $18.3m over four years to support the delivery of front-line services to older people experiencing elder abuse. Funding will be allocated through grants covering the 2018-19 to 2021-22 period.

The Elder Abuse Service Trials comprise the following components.

Specialist elder abuse units

The units will comprise lawyers, social workers and other specialist and support staff, who will work side by side with clients to develop a case plan and respond to the individual's needs.

Health-justice partnerships

Older people in the health care system who are identified by health care workers and social workers as being at risk or potentially subjected to elder abuse, can access specialised legal support services. These will work in partnership with the health system and related referral agencies, such as community aged care services. Early evidence suggests this model reaches very vulnerable people who are not otherwise identified, such as those experiencing neglect and/or isolation.

Case management and mediation services

Case management and mediation services will work with the older person and their family, to find solutions to the underlying problems driving abuse. Elder abuse can have its roots in complex family relationships, where there is conflict between adult children, family breakdown, family violence and mental health problems. This model recognises that older people may place maintaining their relationship with their children and grandchildren above their own safety.

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