Should elder abuse be criminalised?

In this WYZA® report on elder abuse we ask if more can be done to protect our ageing loved ones. As disturbing details continue to emerge of elder abuse, often at the hands of family members, we are opening up a discussion about this serious issue. What can you do to help?

More than 1 in 25 older people in Australia are abused. Most often it is by a member of their own family

To address this issue some lawyers and victims are calling for tougher penalties, specifically a new law that criminalises elder abuse. However not everyone agrees. Lawyer Arthur Koumoukelis, who specialises in aged care and retirement legal matters, says elder abuse in the family setting is a complex issue and punishing family members may not be the answer. “[Elder abuse within families] can’t be isolated from the broader social issues related to ageing,” he says. “It’s a really difficult and vexed issue.”

Mr Koumoukelis says children of ageing parents face a myriad of emotions, and this can manifest in different ways. He adds, “They just can’t cope with the fact that their parent is becoming more frail, you get this anger that emerges – anger, disbelief and denial.”

In turn, these emotions become magnified and family members may not even recognise that their actions or behaviour are in fact abusive or harmful. “Abuse means intention to harm. However, in reality abuse is sometimes unintentional or hidden under good intentions or being blind to it,” says Mr Koumoukelis.

Who will stand up for them?

“I’ve seen cases of physical abuse often masqueraded as care. Someone thinks they’re doing the right thing by their elderly parent but actually they’re causing harm or discomfort.” One example is when individuals try to provide physical assistance, such as help with showering or visiting the bathroom, and end up inadvertently hurting or bruising their parent.

Psychological abuse is also a big problem, explains Mr Koumkoukelis, often stemming from sibling rivalries. “You get situations where one family member says, ‘I’m here to look after you, he’s not here,’ or ‘You’ve always loved him more than me’, using psychological guilt,” he says.

Another form of abuse, whether intended or otherwise, is neglect. For example, an individual may initially agree to look after a parent across two or three days per week, only to fail to follow through. Deliberate acts of abuse by family members are also widespread in Australia.

In 2013-2014, the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit (EAPU) set up by Uniting Care responded to 5,440 cases of elder abuse nation-wide. The number one type of abuse reported was financial abuse (roughly 40 per cent of all cases), closely followed by psychological abuse (roughly 35 per cent). Physical abuse and neglect each accounted for approximately 10 per cent of cases reported to the EAPU. Meanwhile social and sexual abuse accounted for less than 5 per cent each.

“Elder abuse is a violation of human rights and a significant cause of illness, injury, loss of productivity, isolation and despair” - World Health Organisation

Importantly, the EAPU found that victims would experience multiple types of elder abuse at the same time. Perpetrators were more likely to be men, while victims were more likely to be older women. In 2013-14, 32.2 per cent of perpetrators were found to be the older person’s son, and 30.7 per cent were the older person’s daughter.

Mr Koumoukelis believes the first step to addressing the issue is educating people to recognise the signs of elder abuse.

“The really important thing is to identify what abuse looks like, and educate people, before going down the path of AVOs, criminal charges and suing the kids,” he says.


Susan Ryan, Age Discrimination Commissioner is calling for a national approach to help protect older people, and encourage them to speak up

Recognising elder abuse

Financial Abuse:

  • Forced changes to legal documents
  • Misappropriation of money
  • Denying access to personal funds
  • Forging signatures
  • Misuse of a bank card
  • Enduring Power of Attorney

Psychological Abuse:

  • Verbal intimidation, humiliation, harassment and shouting
  • Threats of various forms
  • Withholding affection
  • Removal of decision-making power

Neglect:

  • Preventing an older person from accessing aged care services
  • Receiving carers allowance but not providing care
  • Failing to provide adequate food, water, clothing, medical treatment, medication, warmth or shelter

Physical Abuse:

  • Slapping, hitting, kicking, tripping, shoving, burning or bruising
  • Physical restraint
  • Over or under-medicating
  • Handling an older person too roughly

Social Abuse:

  • Preventing contact with family or friends
  • Cancelling services
  • Withholding mail, or disconnecting the phone
  • Living in, and taking control of the person's home
  • Preventing the older person from engaging in cultural or religious practices

Source: Elder Abuse Prevention Unit 

Boomer -life -elder -abuse -prevent -wyza -com -auIf you're in an abusive environment, immediately speak up for yourself and seek help

9 Strategies to help prevent abuse

These 9 strategies from the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit have been adapted from “No Innocent Bystanders” and are suggested steps that older people and their families can take to prevent abuse.

1. Avoid making important decisions following a significant event in your life.

2. Plan for the future while you are well, healthy and independent.

3. Do not give up control of your assets while you can still manage them.

4. Seek a wide social network beyond your immediate family and remain active within the community.

5. Have your pensions and cheques credited directly to your bank account.

6. Do not allow adult children to live with you without first seeking advice from a trusted person (particularly if the person uses drugs, alcohol or has a psychiatric disability).

7. Ask for help to fully understand all legal documents before signing.

8. Know your rights and don’ t be afraid to assert them.

9. Be aware of your right to confidentiality, privacy and the right to refuse anyone intervening on your behalf.

For assistance
NSW Elder Abuse Helpline 1800 628 221
Queensland Elder Abuse Helpline 1300 651 192
Victoria Seniors Rights Helpline 1300 368 821

Information regarding other states, visit: www.eapu.com.au and download the EAPU ‘How to protect yourself’ factsheet.

To report abuse within government-subsidised aged care settings, contact the independent Aged Care Complaints Commissioner 1800 550 552 or visit: www.agedcarecomplaints.gov.au.

Have you or someone you loved experienced elder abuse? Join the conversation below.