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Learning from each other – Responding to Elder Abuse in Australia


By the Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner

The abuse of our elders is a serious human rights issue. I hear harrowing stories of elder abuse each week; stories of people being pressured for money by their family, losing their entire life savings, suffering physical or sexual abuse and having their medication stolen.

We grapple with common issues internationally to address elder abuse. The drivers and manifestations of abuse are similar, as are the challenges in responding and preventing abuse. As it is in the United States, financial abuse is the most common form of elder abuse in Australia, most often perpetrated by the victim’s son or daughter.

It is vital we learn from other countries’ experiences of, and responses to, elder abuse. I would encourage you to share your knowledge, resources and ideas on these issues with others—and not just within your industry or region, but far and wide.

What is being done to address elder abuse in Australia?

Elder abuse has grown in public awareness and political consciousness in Australia in recent years. There is now a good level of interest and action to address elder abuse by all levels of government, rights organisations and across the community.

Some important Australian initiatives to address elder abuse include:

  • An inquiry and report by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), Elder Abuse: A National Legal Response, making 43 recommendations for reform
  • A National Plan and an Implementation Plan to respond to the abuse of older Australians, outlining policies and initiatives to understand better, prevent, respond to and safeguard against elder abuse
  • Compass, Australia’s first national information hub and elder abuse service directory
  • A national research program to strengthen the evidence base on the nature and prevalence of elder abuse in Australia
  • Innovative response models, such as elder abuse prevention units, health-justice partnerships, specialist elder abuse prevention units and community “Info Bingo” education events.

Significant work is underway in Australia—but there is always more to be done.

Advocating for change

I have a long-standing interest in the rights of older people. I taught health science students for over a decade, during which time I co-developed some of the first courses in gerontology in Australia. I also promoted issues affecting older Australians as a Senator in the Australian Federal Parliament, where I lobbied for and achieved the removal of the compulsory retirement age in the Australian Public Service.

As Australia’s Age Discrimination Commissioner, I continue to raise age issues, particularly elder abuse. I am advocating for the alignment of powers of attorney laws across states and territories and the creation of a national register for these documents (the latter has recently been agreed to). These measures should help to reduce elder abuse. As in the United States, Australia has experienced resistance to standardising power of attorney laws across the country. However, I remain hopeful that with only eight jurisdictions, and a re-commitment by Attorneys-General, Australia can enact these reforms.

Education is also key to addressing elder abuse. With an ageing population, it is increasingly important professionals are equipped to respond to abuse. In this area, I have been encouraging content on elder abuse and ageism be incorporated in undergraduate courses and continuing professional development for workers, particularly in the healthcare, law and finance sectors.

It is also vital that community members know their rights and where they can get support. I developed an elder abuse awareness bookmark, with positive messages to raise awareness of elder abuse and the national helpline. The concept was borrowed, with permission, from a small legal centre in the Australian Capital Territory. Little did they know how wide-spread it would become—not just reaching towns right across Australia but also being adapted by the US National Centre on Elder Abuse—showcasing the power of sharing an idea!

Working together to combat elder abuse

Older people must know their rights and where they can access support if they, or someone they know, experiences abuse. Elder abuse requires a ‘whole of community’ response.

A problem as complex and serious as elder abuse needs as many sets of eyes, ears and voices as possible to identify, respond to and prevent.

This World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is particularly important given the social isolation resulting from COVID-19 which could result in an increase in elder abuse. 

On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day 2020, let’s stand united against this insidious problem.

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Special Thanks to Judith D. Tamkin

We are sincerely appreciative to Judith D. Tamkin for her gift to help establish the USC Center on Elder Mistreatment’s website. Her deep and personal commitment to eradicating elder abuse is helping to reshape our understanding of elder abuse and ultimately save innumerable older adults from abuse and neglect.