Older people living alone in Canberra can be among the city’s most vulnerable, struggling to pay the bills, unable to heat their homes, and sometimes also facing pressure from adult children.
When their only source of income is the age pension, older people may have to choose between buying food or medicine, and avoid heating their homes in winter. In some troubling cases seen at Care Financial Counselling Service and Legal Aid ACT, older people can be under pressure from adult children to hand over the limited funds they have.
It’s a reminder that despite its profile of being an affluent city, Canberra is far less friendly for those who are doing it tough. Care’s financial capability team, who have helped more than 1200 low income Canberrans in the past year with their energy bills, have identified older people to be most at risk of health-related problems due to cold housing. Many clients share stories of covering themselves in blankets, using hot water bottles and going to bed early to avoid the cold.
They are often not aware of the many schemes and concessions are available, including ActewAGL’s Staying Connected Program, where clients can make affordable repayment arrangements.
It may only take the replacement of a necessary household item such as a fridge or a washing machine, or an unexpected illness, to tip someone into extreme financial hardship. The stress that accompanies the inability to pay living costs can be profound and can affect people’s mental and physical health. One of the effects of living on a low income is the potential for increasing isolation and withdrawal from community. This can reduce the chance for older people to be involved in decision-making and planning for an inclusive future. Financial hardship always exacerbates the situation.
An emerging issue for Canberra is the incidence of elder abuse, which often leaves people confused as to why their lives have been turned upside-down, most often by family members or carers. Elder abuse is typically defined as abuse of an older person by someone in a position of trust. The abuse can be financial, emotional, physical, sexual, psychological or include other forms of threatening and coercive behaviour. Elder abuse can place an older person in the difficult position of having to choose between maintaining the familial relationship over their own wellbeing.
The Law Council of Australia released its Justice Project report this month. The report examines the many access to justice barriers people with significant social and economic disadvantage encounter. Dedicating an entire chapter to older persons, it found that a “significant number of older persons have low awareness of their legal rights and may find it difficult to identify a legal problem in the first instance”.
When an older person does identify as having a legal problem, the report observed that their response may be delayed or inadequate and attributed it to a number of factors, such as “limited knowledge of where to find legal help, greater reliance on family and friends, digital exclusion, limited access to funds (either due to elder financial abuse or economic disadvantage), a perception that the law is disempowering, and/or belief that the potential benefits of engaging with the legal system are outweighed by the stress, cost and delay in resolving the issue’’.
Moreover, older people often face significant barriers to effective participation when engaging in formal legal processes.
The new Older Person’s ACT Legal Service at Legal Aid ACT can help in cases where older people are under pressure from family members – through, for example, drawing up legal agreements that set out how much adult children will contribute towards bills and housework, and prevent abuse.
OPALS will also have a strong community legal education focus, attempting to raise awareness to prevent elder abuse from occurring and encouraging older people in the community to seek help. The recent injection of ACT government funds to Legal Aid ACT to address the legal needs of older people is a significant step forward in reducing some of the access to justice barriers older people face.
Cities that promote an age-friendly environment help people of all ages to live safely, enjoy good health and stay involved with their community. It is clear the ACT government is committed to supporting older people with the cost of living in Canberra - the ACT utilities concession and the ability to defer rates for some homeowners over 65 are examples of this. However, for those older people experiencing multiple disadvantage - such as poor health, disability, socio-economic disadvantage and social isolation – access to more support is needed.
Elizabeth Samra is principal solicitor at Care Financial Counselling and the Consumer Law Centre. Before moving to Canberra she worked at a specialist elder abuse legal service in Victoria. She speaks at seminar on Thursday asking whether Canberra is an age friendly city. Carol Benda works at Legal Aid ACT and is setting up OPALS.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.