15 June 2021
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (“WEAAD” for you acronym lovers) has since 2006, been observed across the globe in recognition of this growing issue on 15th June each year.
The statistics in this snapshot show what we know about elder abuse in our society:
If you were to close your eyes and take a moment to picture an older person - who do you see? Perhaps you see an older person from your own life. Maybe you pictured your parents, ongo matu'a, matua, grandparents, fanga kui, matua o matua, grandma Tala from Disney’s Moana, or Betty White, or the lovely Ms Yvonne Maea-Brown.
The terms “older people”, the “elderly” or “seniors” is an umbrella term for a wide range of people from different backgrounds, usually over 65 (an arbitrary age and to put it into context Oprah, Queen Elizabeth II and Dolly Parton are all over 65), but whose experiences, stories, dreams and accomplishments are diverse. This might seem obvious, but unfortunately, it can be easy to stereotype all older people into one category. The word for this stereotyping is “ageism”. Ageism can present itself in our lives in subtle ways, like when we are forgetful and say “I am having a senior’s moment” or have age shame. In its extreme form, however, ageism can be a driver and cause of elder abuse.
What is elder abuse?
There is no formal legal definition of elder abuse in Australia. The most accepted definition is that created by the World Health Organisation who have said that:
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’s important to note that this definition limits elder abuse to family relationships. As such, older people are recognised in Queensland’s domestic and family violence legislation as people who are at risk of domestic and family violence.
In Pacific Island communities, where family is integral to the heartbeat of our existence, we should make note of this importance.
What are some examples of elder abuse?
Elder abuse can take many forms, such as:
physical and/or sexual abuse, for example, applying force, or harm, damaging property, sexual assault;
financial abuse, that include theft, misuse of Enduring Power of Attorney;
emotional and psychological abuse, such as belittling, verbal abuse, gaslighting, withholding mail;
neglect, for instance failing to provide care, over or under medication; or
social abuse, by isolating older people from their social groups or community.
Older people experiencing elder abuse will often experience multiple forms of abuse at the same time.
What elder abuse does not include are:
misconduct/abuse by hospitals;
misconduct/abuse by aged care providers;
misconduct/abuse by strangers; or
scams that target older people.
How can we notice and recognise elder abuse?
There are many causes to elder abuse. It can happen when there’s economic pressures, carer’s stress, mental health or other health pressures on the older person or the abuser, it can be a result of intergenerational violence or entrenched family conflict, or due to the abuser’s alcohol or illicit substance abuse.
Here are some red flags to look out for:
an older person looks scared or is quiet in the presence of an abuser;
an older person tells you that they have signed (or were forced to sign) some documents but they have no idea what they signed, these documents could be a Will, Power of Attorney, loan or other contract;
an older person has a change in mood from their usual self at the presence of mention of the name of the abuser;
an older person has bruising or injuries that doesn’t match the description;
an older person is being prevented from seeing grandchildren or other family members or from going to church or cultural/social events;
an older person is being pressured to give or ‘donate’ money;
an older person is in contact with a person that has a history of domestic violence that you’re aware of, or have other legal issues; or
an older person has debts or bills that shouldn’t be theirs, such as phone bills or other debts put in their name by family members or an abuser without their consent.
This is not an exhaustive list. Sometimes your ‘gut feeling’ is the best red flag when you feel that something just isn’t right.
Being aware of the ‘red flags’ of elder abuse could help you notice it. There’s no onus on you to confirm it’s happening but having a greater awareness of elder abuse gives you the opportunity to help an older person receive support, information or advice sooner rather than later and prevent crisis.
Be a champion against elder abuse! Here’s five top tips (plus one Bonus Tip)
1. If you notice elder abuse and an older person reaches out to you for help, encourage them to contact:
(a) Seniors Legal and Support Service for free legal advice; or
(b) Elder Abuse Prevention Unit Hotline on 1300 651 192.
If you’re outside Brisbane, check Compass.info for information about an elder abuse service near you.
Having the right information at the right time can do a lot to reduce stress and worry for the older person, even if they choose not to take any action after receiving advice.
2. If you have older neighbours or family who live alone, check in on them in a kind and gentle way. This can take courage, and of course any interaction should be within the bounds of what the older person wants. But let them know what you can offer them, whether it is someone to talk to, or to call out to if they need help. The important thing is to build rapport or a relationship, and to get to know the older person.
3. Be aware and call out ageism when you see or hear it. Even in the small subtle ways I discussed above. Like racism and sexism, there is no place for ageism in our society.
4. Talk to your older family members about Enduring Powers of Attorneys (EPA), or Wills. In Queensland , you should refer to the Capacity Guidelines and EPA Explanatory Guide. In my Samoan culture, decision-making for elders, if not done by the older person themselves, is often done by their spouse, or collectively by the immediate or close family members for our older people. Culturally it may appear disrespectful to talk about placing your affairs in order and/or death to older people (especially if they are healthy), but we live in an Australian society where having a Will and an EPA in place will help reduce stress to loved ones if the older persons intentions are made clear. Ensure they receive independent legal advice about those documents with interpreters unrelated to them if needed.
5. If you or someone you know is someone’s Attorney, it’s really important to know what that role means, and the obligations. Before an Attorney makes a decision on behalf of their family member, it’s important to remember that the decision should not just be about what’s best for them, but what they actually want and would do. If you are truly centering the older person’s voice, then that means actively listening to them and doing what you can to meet their wishes.
Be our loving selves. There is so much ‘alofa’ (love) inherent in the ways our communities operate. One of the barriers for older people to report elder abuse is shame or fear. Shame from acknowledging that it is their adult child who is abusing them, and fear in losing that relationship with their loved one. I had one older client tell me that they felt they had no choice but to put up with the abuse because it was the only way they could have family in their life. That statement really connected me with their humanity and reminded me that we are all people who desire and need love. Older people have right to family and connection as much as they have a right to safety and protection. As such, we all have a role to play whether or not the older person looks like the older person you saw in your head. Our action of love requires us to do our bit to notice and recognise elder abuse, be champions against it, to speak up about it, and to love our elders and increasingly ageing population (which includes us as we ‘glow up’!).
Happy World Elder Abuse Awareness Day!
By Tile Imo
Edited and Infographic by Heilala Tabete
 See the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit Annual Report 2019-20 Report here. See summary of Elder Abuse information by the Australian institute of Family Studies (AIFS) here. AIFS will be releasing Australia’s first national study into Elder Abuse later this year.
 Check out Ashton Applewhite’s excellent Ted Talk about Ageism here.
 See the World Health Organisation Fact Sheet about Elder Abuse here.