What is elder abuse?

1.8        Elder abuse, as described by the WHO, 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’.[6] It can take various forms, such as physical abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect.

Types of abuse

1.9        Psychological or emotional abuse appears to be one of the most common types of elder abuse, and includes verbal abuse, name-calling, bullying and harassment. Other examples of psychological abuse include: treating an older person like a child; repeatedly telling them they have dementia; threatening to withdraw affection; and threatening to put them in a nursing home. Stopping an older person from seeing family and friends may also be psychological abuse or ‘social abuse’.

1.10     Financial abuse is another common type of elder abuse, and includes: incurring bills for which an older person is responsible; stealing money or goods; and abusing power of attorney arrangements. Other behaviours that may, in some circumstances, be financial abuse include: refusing to repay a loan; living with someone without helping to pay for expenses; failing to care for someone after agreeing to do so in exchange for money or property; and forcing someone to sign a will, contract or power of attorney document.

1.11     Physical abuse might include pushing, shoving and rough handling. Australian crime statistics suggest that older people are less likely to be murdered or physically assaulted than younger people, but some types of physical abuse of older people may not be caught by these statistics—for example, the improper use of ‘restrictive practices’ in hospitals and residential care facilities.

1.12     Sexual abuse includes rape and other unwanted sexual contact. It may also include inappropriate touching and the use of sexually offensive language.

1.13     Neglect includes failing to provide someone with such things as food, shelter or medical care. Family members may be responsible for providing such ‘necessities of life’ and some may receive a social security payment for doing so. Staff in residential care facilities and others who provide in-home care may also be responsible for providing such care.

Risk factors

1.14     Further research is needed on risk factors for abuse, but there is evidence that people who suffer elder abuse are more likely to be dependent on others and have: significant disability; poor physical health; mental disorders, such as depression; low income or socioeconomic status; cognitive impairment; and social isolation. Other risk factors include living alone with the perpetrator; and being aged older than 74 years. There is also some evidence that women are more at risk of elder abuse than men.

1.15     Risk factors for people who commit elder abuse include depression, substance abuse and financial, emotional and relational dependence.

Relationship with family violence

1.16     Elder abuse is commonly defined to refer to abuse by people ‘in a position of trust’. Although this will include paid carers, elder abuse is often committed by a family member of the older person—notably, by adult children, but also the older person’s spouse or partner. Elder abuse will therefore often also be family or domestic violence. While not as ‘gendered’ as family violence, elder abuse is suffered more often by women than men, and not only because women live longer than men. The dynamics of the abuse tend to be somewhat different, but elder abuse policy may learn much from initiatives to prevent family violence.