Look out for signs of elder abuse this Christmas

Michael Meegan - Relationships Australia NT CEO

Christmas can be a wonderful time of the year however things may not necessarily be so cheerful for some of our older and most vulnerable citizens.

Studies referenced in the National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians (2019-2023) estimate that up to 1 in 7 older people may experience some type of abuse.  Unfortunately, older people can be vulnerable to the very same types of abuses as younger members of society, including verbal, psychological/emotional, physical, sexual or financial abuse, or a combination of these abuses. And sadly, the abuse is often committed by children, relatives or other people who the older person should be able to trust.  

A range of factors can play a role in elder abuse including social isolation, ageism, financial pressures, drug or alcohol dependence, physical or mental health conditions, and unresolved trauma, to name only a few.  It’s important to remember that every situation may be different.   The abuse of older people may be intentional or unintentional; it can also be a single incident or maybe a recurring pattern of behaviours that have been happening over a longer period of time.  Some types of abuse may even be crimes (e.g. sexual abuse, theft, fraud). 

While abuse of older people happens in all communities and is chronically underreported, the Territory's elderly population are at a disadvantage if the rest of us don't understand or aren’t on the lookout for warning signs.  As families come together for the festive season, I implore Territorians to learn about the warning signs of elder abuse, so we can collectively take action to 'break the silence' about elder abuse and ensure the safety and well-being of our seniors.

Simple signs to look out for can include: unexplained physical injuries or bruising; or you may see or hear threats, shouting or humbugging directed towards an older person; or you may notice unexpected changes to an older person's self-esteem and confidence or that an older person seems fearful, stressed, or anxious about their current situation, without an obvious explanation.

Signs that aren't as obvious to the naked eye, but which may be hiding something of deeper significance, may revolve around relationships and finances. For example, in discussion with an older person, you may find their relationships with their children, or grandchildren have suddenly become strained and they are now avoiding talking about their family altogether. Or you may notice that they are becoming increasingly isolated, for example, by not receiving usual visitors or they are withdrawing from attending activities that were previously very important to them.

Another thing to look out for is unexplained changes in the pattern of the older person's spending. For example, if they once were very happy to go out for coffee with you but now tend to reject your invitations or become unusually cautious about spending money, you could gently check in with them.  Unusually empty cupboards or fridges with only minimal food in them may also signal that there’s a problem.  Financial abuse is one of many possible reasons why someone could be struggling to afford food or clothing or why they are paying bills late, or not at all. 

Unfortunately, some of our older population are also vulnerable to being manipulated by strangers or scammers, which can lead to bank accounts being drained, their homes being taken over or sold, valuable items being stolen or unexpected changes being made to their Will or other legal documents (e.g. Power of Attorney or Advanced Personal Plans). If you know an older person who has recently met a stranger who seems to be exerting a great deal of influence over them, perhaps try to discreetly determine if their intentions are honourable or not.

Early intervention and support can protect older people from abuse and assist with resolving family conflicts and tensions. If you suspect an older person might be a victim of abuse, you could gently encourage them to seek support from a trusted professional, such as their doctor or Bank Manager.  Relationships Australia NT also offers free and confidential information, referrals, counselling and facilitated family meetings for older people at risk of abuse. Concerned family members or friends of an older person are also welcome to contact us. 

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