Elder abuse is a broad term for any action or inaction that causes fear of violence, isolation, deprivation, humiliation or powerlessness in an older person. It is different from other forms of family violence in that it can occur in any relationship where there is an ‘expectation of trust’. That means, along with family members, perpetrators can include carers, neighbours and friends.
Abuse can take different forms, including physical, psychological, financial, sexual, or neglect. It may manifest in a myriad of different ways, from denying an older person access to grandchildren, relatives or friends, to forcefully encouraging changes to a will or legal document. Where neglect occurs, it can be either intentional or unintentional.
The World Health Organisation describes elder abuse as “a violation of human rights and a significant cause of injury, illness, lost productivity, isolation and despair.” Its impact on older people can be life-changing, leading to depression, anxiety, psychological harm, declining physical health, increased mortality, poverty and homelessness.
Compared to other forms of family violence elder abuse remains relatively hidden. Lack of community awareness, ageism, and the invisibility of the elderly mean the issue is under-researched and under-reported.
Legal help can make a big difference to people at risk of elder abuse. However, many older people seek advice very late, when responses can be costly, difficult and stressful. There are lots of reasons someone may seek legal help late, such as social isolation, lack of knowledge about legal services, and lack of understanding that a problem they are experiencing has a legal solution.
Many people experiencing elder abuse also experience health problems. We know that older people are accessing health services, which provides us with an opportunity to identify and respond to the issue.
An admission to hospital, for example, may be the only time an older person is separated from the perpetrator. They can privately disclose to a trusted health professional what they are experiencing. Even where abuse is not disclosed, health professionals are well-placed to pick up on warning signs of abuse: they overhear conversations, witness family dynamics, or pick up on body language.
Through the Health Justice Partnership model, our lawyers are embedded in health services. We work alongside health staff to improve the response to elder abuse. As a trusted part of the health team, our lawyers can be introduced quickly where abuse is identified by our colleagues, allowing us to deliver free legal help at an earlier stage as part of a holistic response to the issue.
If you’re a health care worker in one of our Health Justice Partnerships in Victoria or New South Wales, our lawyers are available to help answer any questions you may have about supporting your patient. If you think one of your patients may be at risk of elder abuse, reach out to the lawyer located at your service.
Please note that only staff working within each Health Justice Partnership can refer patients our lawyers.
Cate Banks, Justice Connect Senior Lawyer
Health Justice Partnership with cohealth
Cate.Banks@justiceconnect.org.au Phone: (03) 8636 4435
Rachel Schulkes, Justice Connect Lawyer
Rachel.Shulkes@justiceconnect.org.au Phone: (03) 8636 4443
Carolyn Odgers, Justice Connect Lawyer
Health Justice Partnership with Uniting War Memorial Hospital (Sydney)
Carolyn.Odgers@justiceconnect.org.au Phone: (02) 8599 2119