If you are supporting someone who is older or lives with an older person, it is vital you can recognise elder abuse and respond appropriately.
What is elder abuse?
Family violence towards an older person is often described as ‘elder abuse’. It is a term many older people find more relatable to their experience than the term ‘family violence’. The term ‘older person’ refers to anyone who is aged 60 or older, or any Aboriginal person aged 45 or older.
Elder abuse is any harm or mistreatment of an older person that is committed by someone with whom the older person has a relationship of trust1. In the context of family violence, this may be abuse from intimate partners, adult children, unpaid carers, or extended family members.
Elder abuse may take any of the forms defined under family violence. However, it does not extend to elder abuse occurring outside of the family context, such as in institutional or community care settings.
Older people may experience compounding risk factors and forms of discrimination, such as ageism. This can be exploited by people using family violence and increase the risk to an older person2.
- Declining mental or physical health; transitioning from independence to dependence
- Experiencing marginalisation and discrimination because of ageism
- Decreased social and community connections and increased isolation
- Loss of economic power and access to information, services, and resources
- Poor or limited affordable housing options.3
Identifying elder abuse
Elder abuse is a form of family violence and can include acts of psychological, financial, cultural, verbal, social, spiritual, sexual, and physical abuse and neglect. Evidence shows that perpetrators of elder abuse are more likely to use financial abuse than in other family violence contexts.
Behaviours that constitute elder abuse include:
- Physical abuse, such as pushing, hitting, or shoving.
- Verbal and psychological abuse, such as berating, threatening the older person, or dominating the family home.
- Financial abuse, such as fraud, controlling how the older person uses their money, or not contributing to the household costs (e.g. bills or rent), thereby draining the older person’s resources.
- Stealing or causing damage to the older person’s belongings.
- Exposing the older person to illicit drugs or other unwanted behaviours.
- Over-medicating or under-medicating the older person.
- Restricting the older person’s access to mobility aids.
- Neglecting the older person’s needs, such as food, shelter, or hygiene.
- Denying an older transgender person gender-affirming care and support, or access to hormone treatment.
- Exposing the older person to risk of the COVID-19 virus by not taking proper precautions.
- Maliciously or unnecessarily applying for guardianship, medical or financial administration.
Important practice considerations to keep in mind when responding to older people experiencing family violence:
- Be aware of ageism from services and your own potential for unconscious bias and ageism. This can include not recognising their experience as family violence or undermining the person’s agency, such as by not engaging with them directly but instead engaging and potentially colluding with adult children who might be perpetrators.
- Ensure the service environment is welcoming and approachable for victim survivors from a range of diverse communities and older people.4
- Be aware that cognitive issues or impairments may affect some older people’s capacity to engage with services including self-assessed levels of risk. However, a person should be presumed to have capacity unless there is evidence to suggest otherwise.5
- Be careful not to assume someone has reduced cognitive capacity based on how they present, when they may be experiencing a trauma response.
- Ensure appropriate supports and adjustments are provided for older people with disabilities or whose cognition is affected. This may include communication supports, advocacy and different communication strategies (written, Easy English, and verbal reiteration).
- Be aware that violence against older Aboriginal people must be informed by an understanding of the context of Aboriginal family violence, and in particular, the unique experiences, roles and relationships of Aboriginal families and communities.
- Be aware that family and community relationships can be deeply bound to culture and faith, and violence against older people must be informed by recognition and an understanding of their family structure, cultural or faith background.
- Work collaboratively and make appropriate referrals to specialist services working with older people experiencing family violence.
For further foundational knowledge on older people and family violence, as well as and your risk assessment and management responsibilities, refer to the Multi-agency Risk Assessment and Management (MARAM) Framework Victim Survivor Practice Guides.
Tools and resources
Seniors Rights Victoria is a specialist service that provides information, support, advice, and education to help prevent elder abuse and safeguard the rights, dignity and independence of older people.
Evidence shows there is a high prevalence of elder abuse perpetrated by adult children, and this can be a complex context for practitioners to support the safety and wellbeing of elder victim survivors. Seniors Rights Victoria identified that practitioners would benefit from increased guidance to support them to identify this form of family violence, and to uphold the rights and safety of older people in intergenerational households – particularly when the older person may not be the primary client of the service. We have developed this resource in partnership with Seniors Rights Victoria.
Check out our resource for more detailed information about ways you can provide support.
Further reading and resources
COMPASS – Guiding Action on Elder Abuse
Visit the COMPASS website for information about elder abuse. The website also has a support directory and resources. COMPASS was created by Elder Abuse Action Australia (EAAA), with funding from the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department.
1. Family Safety Victoria (2019). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria.
2. Domestic Violence Victoria (2020). Code of Practice: Principles and Standards for Specialist Family Violence Services for Victim-Survivors. 2nd Edition. Melbourne: DV Vic.
3. Family Safety Victoria (2019). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria.
4. Domestic Violence Victoria (2020). Code of Practice: Principles and Standards for Specialist Family Violence Services for Victim-Survivors. 2nd Edition. Melbourne: DV Vic.
5. Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act 2006 (Vic) s2–4.