Geoff Rowe is CEO of Aged and Disability Advocacy Australia (ADA Australia), an aged care and disability advocacy service based in Queensland. In 2018, Geoff was awarded the Paul Tys Churchill Fellowship to examine the world’s best practice in preventing and responding to elder abuse.

Elderabuse is a crime, and it’s time we talked about it that way.

Elder abuse can take many forms. Financial abuse is probably what we hear about most often, but it can be physical abuse. It can be sexual abuse. It can be psychological or emotional abuse. It can be neglect.

The Federal Government’s National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians, released earlier this year, estimated that somewhere between 2 and 10 per cent of older people will experience elder abuse at some point in their lives, and that roughly 185,000 older Australians experience some form of abuse or neglect each year.

That’s a significant number, but it’s probably not the whole picture. I recently spent seven weeks travelling around the world, visiting New York, Vancouver, Anchorage, Edinburgh, London and Wellington, talking to people who are working in the elder abuse space. In New York, their research suggested that only 1 in every 24 cases of elder abuse is actually reported, and I suspect the same is true here.

The Federal Government is now attempting to quantify the extent of elder abuse in Australia, and while I’m supportive of that, it’s more important that we invest in solutions. The analogy I like to use is that there’s a house that’s on fire now, and the government wants to go and research house fires. They want to count how many fires there are and look at all the different options for fighting them. In the meantime, the house burns to the ground.

We need to get the researchers on the fire trucks. Of course we need to quantify the problem, but we also have to invest in dealing with the issue now. Something I observed in my travels — and Australia is no different — is that there are lots of elder abuse helplines and referral services, but when it comes to people on the ground, responding to and working one-on-one with victims, we’re still very light on.

Part of the problem is perception. Because the perpetrators of elder abuse are often family members — usually a son or daughter, or even a grandchild — the person who has been abused often believes that it must be their fault; that it must be something they’ve done. They’re the one who brought their son or daughter into the world; they’re the one who taught them the values they have; so they feel a high degree of shame to tell people what their son or daughter has done to them.

Society’s attitude towards elder abuse at the moment is where our attitude to domestic violence was 20 years ago. Back then, people saw domestic violence as a family matter, and they wouldn’t take it to the police. Nowadays, it’s not seen as a family matter. It’s seen as a broader community issue. Assaulting your partner is a crime, and we all know it.

Society’s attitude towards elder abuse at the moment is where our attitude to domestic violence was 20 years ago.

We have to treat elder abuse the same way. If I went down to the police station and I told them one of my staff had stolen $10,000 from me, they’d be very interested. But when an older person goes to the police station and tells them their son or daughter has stolen $10,000 from them, the police will often say, ‘Oh, that’s a family matter.’ No, it’s not a family matter. It’s a crime, and the perpetrators have to be held accountable for their actions.

We need to educate older people about their rights, and we need to educate the public about elder abuse, so that people can recognise it and call it out for what it is when they see it.

There is work being done in the US to train doctors to recognise the signs of elder abuse, so that when an older person presents to the emergency department, doctors can tell the difference between injuries that were caused by a fall and injuries that were likely to have been caused by abuse. When they suspect elder abuse has taken place, doctors in 50 US states are required under law to report it.

In Australia at the moment, if a doctor or teacher suspects a child is being abused, they are required to report it, but there is no requirement for them to report a suspicion of elder abuse. We need to make it mandatory here.

Australia also needs an enduring power of attorney register. At the moment, I could have a document granting me enduring power of attorney for my parents that was rescinded 10 years ago, and I could still produce that piece of paper at the bank and demand to access their account. There’s no way the bank can check it. A national register of enduring powers of attorney is a simple solution for that.

Ultimately, I think we need a change in our attitude towards older people in general. Where there is ageism, there is elder abuse.

Where there is ageism, there is elder abuse.

The people who are in aged care now are the people who built our infrastructure and built the community that we enjoy today, and we need to respect the contribution they’ve made to the world we’re inheriting.

We often talk about the current cohort in aged care as being the ‘grateful generation’. They’re the generation who grew up during the war, during the Depression, and they’re reluctant to complain. They just accept things.

But the Baby Boomer generation is coming into aged care now, and I don’t think anyone has ever described them as ‘grateful’. If this generation doesn’t like something, they change it. Look at childbirth — prior to the Baby Boomers, it was all very clinical, and husbands were told to stay away. Nowadays you have birthing suites, everyone is there, and the woman is in control. That’s a result of the Baby Boomers.

I suspect that, as that generation ages, we will see less tolerance for elder abuse. I do think things are already changing, and there is a growing awareness and understanding of elder abuse.

Watch this space.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing elder abuse, call 1800 ELDERHelp (1800 353 374).