The signs of elder abuse you could be missing
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The signs of elder abuse you could be missing

It's the abuse that could be happening right under your nose. It might even be happening to you.

Legal Aid ACT has warned more and more people are coming forward to report elder abuse in the ACT.

Elder abuse typically goes unrecognised or unreported.

Elder abuse typically goes unrecognised or unreported.

The agency wrote to an ACT Legislative Assembly inquiry on the territory's policy responses to domestic and family violence to call for greater recognition of the physical, psychological and financial abuse afflicting older Canberrans.

"We think it's a particular subset of family violence that obviously disproportionately affects elderly people in our community and hasn't been given a great deal of attention in time gone by," Legal Aid ACT's head of general practice Heidi Yates said.

"It might be as simple as dad gives his son the eftpos card to go and get some money out to go to the club later that night where he likes to go for dinner and the son takes out an additional amount without his permission.

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"[It could be] situations where, for example, an older person agrees to hand over the title of their unencumbered home in exchange for a promise of care for the rest of their life and following a relationship breakdown the older person is excluded from the place that has been their home and is left homeless with their title no longer left on the property.

"We've had older people approach us in situations where it's the middle of winter, they're literally left out on the street without their medication or clothing and they've been excluded from the property by a family member to whom they gifted the home."

Australian National University research indicates 6 per cent of respondents had experienced some kind of elder abuse.

Most troubling, the victim may not realise what they are experiencing is abuse.

"That's one of the challenges that we have across the ACT community in talking about family violence as many different forms of coercive and controlling behaviour," Ms Yates said.

"Often that can be demonstrated through the control of a person's finances. The other key area of family violence which often affects older people is psychological or emotional abuse.

"That might include things such as the older person being told they don't know what they're doing or they should leave the decision-making to others in their family or carers or friends.

"We've had older people approach us in situations where it's the middle of winter, they're literally left out on the street without their medication or clothing and they've been excluded from the property by a family member to whom they gifted the home."

Heidi Yates, Legal Aid ACT

"In some of the serious cases we see older people being told they can no longer go and spend time with their friends so the person who normally provides them ... with transport might say, 'I'm not taking you to church anymore' or 'I'm not taking you to the men's shed because I don't think you should be going' or whatever else.

"People become increasingly socially isolated and where the person who is perpetrating that coercive and controlling behaviour is their main point of contact with the outside world, they can become cut off very quickly."

If there is physical violence, Ms Yates said older people are unlikely to come forward as their abuser is likely to be a child or a trusted carer.

"Older people are more likely to be concerned that by reporting the abuse that person might get into trouble or be engaged by the police and they don't want that to happen for them," Ms Yates said.

"They also may blame themselves if they feel like the person is using that behaviour as a result of their failure to get the right kind of parenting they wish they'd offered or the different deficits in their childhood or in their own life so the older person might blame themselves for the conduct that's occurring."

The line can be blurry, especially when an elderly person is frail or has dementia.

Legal Aid chief executive John Boersig said people caring for an elderly parent or relative "can perhaps at times not appreciate the limits of their authority".

"They often bear a lot of responsibility and that can be very wearing," Dr Boersig said.

"Generally in their mind they're not acting in an aggressive or a negative way but through exhaustion, concern.

"And also in those contexts it's interactions in a whole range of abuse between manipulation, financial and psychological that all mingle into a very complex situation for families who are trying to care but also trying to cope with difficult situations where perhaps the person needing care is becoming demented or is quite frail."

However, Ms Yates said the rights of older Canberrans are clearly set out in ACT legislation, including the guardianship and management of property laws.

"It's not generally ever the case, other than in extreme circumstances that someone entirely loses capacity to make decisions about their lives including their money, where they live and who they spend time with

"Even where someone is stepping in to assist someone in making a decision, they're required to turn their mind to what the views, wishes and preferences of that person are, so not what's most convenient, not what the decision maker thinks is going to be good for them."

Legal ACT is developing resources to help people recognise the signs of alder abuse. Their resources will also help families strike up agreements

For help, please call:

  • Domestic Violence Support: 1800RESPECT
  • Legal Aid ACT: 1300 654 314
  • The Older Persons Abuse Prevention Referral and Information Line: Monday to Friday 8.30am to 5pm, 6205 3535
  • In an emergency, call 000
Katie Burgess

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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