Sabina Wynn (SW): The ALRC has recently released a Discussion Paper for its inquiry into Elder Abuse and I’m here speaking with Professor Rosalind Croucher who’s the President of the ALRC and also leading this particular inquiry. Before we talk about the Discussion Paper and the proposals that are in that, I thought it would be good to just ask you what kinds of things we mean by elder abuse?
Professor Rosalind Croucher (RC): Elder abuse is a shorthand phrase that’s used to describe a range of conduct, with respect to older people, causing harm or distress in a situation of trust, for example it can include psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, all manner of abusive conduct that causes harm or distress to an older person.
SW: Is there actually a lot of elder abuse happening in Australia?
RC: That’s a really good question. It’s one of the challenges to pin down if one is going to develop appropriate policy responses. The World Health Organisation estimates that in modern countries that the prevalence is something like 2–14% of older persons but it’s a very generalised response, so finding out exactly what the prevalence is in Australia would be one of the key issues to take forward in coming years to develop the kinds of policy responses that are needed.
SW: The proposals in the Discussion Paper address a number of different areas, recently just yesterday there’s been a lot of media interest in financial abuse and the role that powers of attorney and enduring documents could play in preventing the worst cases of financial elder abuse but perhaps we could concentrate on the other areas that the proposals are addressing in this Discussion Paper.
RC: The enduring documents one is obviously one that attracts a lot of attention it’s the kind of thing that is in the headlines regularly and we certainly deal with a range of issues in relation to those but the other kinds of things we’re looking at are ensuring that people have somewhere to go to raise concerns about elder abuse in a safe way. The police are already doing excellent work as part of their general criminal justice responses and also social justice protections but the concern is well the police can only do so much and they can only investigate really the hard end, the criminal end, of abusive conduct. There are a lot of other situations where people might just be concerned that a neighbour, a relative, is being neglected or treated badly, the banks might be concerned if someone comes in with an elder person that looks like they need a little more help and having somewhere to go seems to be one of the key elements in providing safeguarding and protective responses. So we have a range of proposals that deal with a role that a public advocate or public guardian may have. That office already exists in some states and territories but not in all and we’ve sought to make proposals to make that role a really helpful one and providing an avenue for someone to raise concerns about an older person.
SW: What are the areas of Commonwealth law that the proposals are directed towards?
RC: The main ones concern issues to do with banking but also social security and aged care and in those arenas the emphasis is very much on people understanding rights and responsibilities, ensuring in the aged care environment that there’s appropriate screening for aged care workers, that there is also an emphasis on mandatory response, not necessary just reporting for its own sake in a highly regulated environment already, but rather a focus on the response. So essentially they are both safeguarding proposals and protective proposals. I should also mention in the aged care context that, of cause, many people are not necessarily living in residential aged care there are many, many older people who are continuing to live long and self-determined lives in their own homes with support generously given by family members all across the country and I think it’s important to recognise the role of, the great unrecognised good, that is contributed to Australian society by family members in supporting older people. So while we have looked at the safeguarding and protective responses we obviously have a range of submissions that draw our attention to some of the less pleasant situation that occur but they are part of a much bigger picture in which there’s great deal of support by family, friends and carers as well.
SW: The current Government supports the development of a national plan to coordinate activities in this area of elder abuse, what sort of things do you think a national plan could achieve?
RC: A national plan gives focus at a higher level that would provide an opportunity both to capture all of the excellent work that is currently undertaken, for example by the help lines, by service providers, by support groups, by advocacy groups, in a coordinated way that has a forward looking momentum across the nation. For example, a national plan could establish a national policy framework to guide government, industry and community policies, initiatives and programs with an emphasis on safeguarding the rights older persons; it could outline a plan for action by government and the community; and also provide ways of monitoring and evaluating the programs that are introduced. Above all, it would provide the kind of momentum that some of the excellent work in recent years in addressing family violence has achieved and to try and bring elder abuse out of a rather invisible zone into a priority of national attention.
SW: Thank you Professor Croucher. The ALRC’s Discussion Paper is available now free from the ALRC website and the ALRC would be very keen to hear from the community, from our stakeholders about their reaction to the proposals contained in that Discussion Paper. Submissions are due to the ALRC by the end of February.