Elder abuse: Knowing the signs and how to prevent it

Social workers and students from Westmead Hospital’s Department of Geriatric Medicine were joined by crime prevention officers and volunteers from Castle Hill Police Station to raise awareness of elder abuse.

Thousands of people entering and leaving Westmead Hospital yesterday were confronted with a call to protect our vulnerable communities.

June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, a day to raise awareness about the abuse inflicted on older people and encourage everyone to play their part in helping to prevent it.

What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse is an intentional act or failure to act which causes harm to an older adult, by someone they know and trust.

What can I do about it?

Sarah Carlton, social work acute team leader in Westmead Hospital’s Department of Geriatric Medicine, said the best way to prevent elder abuse is to raise awareness and know the signs.

“Being aware of the signs of elder abuse, and the supports that are out there to help prevent and intervene where there are concerns, allows individuals in the community to assist and educate older Australians about their rights,” Sarah said.

This is often considered a private matter but by raising awareness and starting conversations we can empower older Australians to speak up and seek assistance.

Types and signs of elder abuse

Financial – The illegal, unauthorized, or improper use of an older person’s money or assets. Signs can include large withdrawals or changes in banking habits, not having access to their own money, property transfers when the person is unable to manage their own finances, missing valuables, stress and anxiety.

Neglect – The failure to meet or allow someone else to meet an older person’s basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, hygiene, medical care or emotional support. Signs can include the older person being hungry and thirsty, in poor living environment, medications being mismanaged, pressure sores.

Psychological or emotional – The verbal or non-verbal acts or threats that causes fear of violence, isolation, deprivation, humiliation or feelings of shame and powerlessness to an older person. Signs can include fear, depression, confusion, loneliness and feelings of helplessness, loss of self-esteem.

Physical – The deliberate use of physical force that causes an older person to experiences pain, injury, impairment, or even death. Signs can include bruises, cuts, burns, scratches, unexplained accidents and injuries, over or under-use of medication, and fear.

Sexual – The forced or unwanted sexual interaction of any kind with an older adult. Signs can include unexplained sexually transmitted disease, internal injuries, physical trauma, and anxiety when near the abuser.

Social – Isolating, restricting or preventing an older person from having contact with family and friends as well as denying or limiting social activities. Signs can include loss of interaction with others, sadness and low self-esteem, and repeated unanswered phone messages.

Spiritual – Control of another person’s religious beliefs and choices, as well as using religious beliefs to rationalise control over another person. Signs can include restricting someone practicing their religious beliefs and access to religious groups.

It is important to note that often more than one form of abuse may be used.

What should I do if I suspect elder abuse?

Sarah said anyone with concerns should speak to the older person they’re worried about – provided they’re in a safe environment where the suspected abuser is not present.

“If you are unsure if something is elder abuse or unsure what to do then the Ageing and Disability Abuse Helpline (1800 628 221) can talk to you or the older person about the situation and concerns.

“Social workers in the hospital and community can assist in addressing concerns regarding Elder Abuse or you could also raise concerns with your GP.

“If you feel the older person is at immediate risk of harm, then you should contact police for assistance.”

Anyone with questions about elder abuse can contact the following services for more information and support:

  • Ageing and Disability Abuse Helpline – 1800 628 221
  • 1800 RESPECT – 1800 737 732
  • NSW Domestic Violence Line – 1800 65 64 63
  • WASH House – 9677 1962
  • Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) Integrated Violence Prevention & Response Service – 9881 8787