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What is elder abuse?

Information and examples of elder abuse

What is elder abuse?

The 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence recognised that elder abuse is a form of family violence experienced by older people.

The Royal Commission Reported:
In some ways, family violence experienced by older people is no different to that experienced by younger people. It can be of a physical, sexual, emotional or psychological nature and be committed by an intimate partner or other family member.

Family violence against older people tends to be under-reported. Some older people may not recognise their experience as family violence and may regard abusive behaviour as a “normal” part of their intimate partner or family relationships, or of ageing.

The definition of elder abuse used in Victoria was adopted from the Australian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (ANPEA 1999). It describes elder abuse as:
Any act occurring within a relationship where there is an implication of trust which results in harm to an older person.

One of the most common types of elder abuse is financial.

Elder abuse is a complex issue that can challenge views about the nature of families and the status of older people in our community. In some instances, neither the victim nor the alleged perpetrator may be aware that what is occurring is actually abuse.

While it is vastly under-reported, it is estimated that up to 10 per cent of older people worldwide experience elder abuse (World Health Organization).

Jenny Blakey is the Manager of Seniors Rights Victoria, the key statewide service for older people experiencing elder abuse in Victoria.

One of the saddest facts about elder abuse is that it is carried out by someone close to an older person, typically a family member, she says.

Older people may be at greater risk of abuse because, in some instances, they can be dependent on others for help. And unfortunately, they may experience more than one type of abuse at a time.

Concerned about the wellbeing of an older person?

Older people may be reluctant to seek help because it may be to the detriment of someone close to them, and people outside the family may consider it a private matter or they may not know where to go for help.

In some instances, the older person may not wish to take a legal intervention – instead, they just want the behaviour that is causing harm to stop. If you’re worried about someone, explain that you are concerned, and ask non-accusing questions about what is happening.

Listen and believe what they tell you, and support their right to make their own decisions – even if they don’t seem like the best ones to you. Because people may feel ashamed to speak about the situation, it is important to listen and encourage the person to seek help. An alleged perpetrator may try to cover up elder abuse, explain it away or isolate the older person from people who could help.

Recognising and admitting abuse and challenging the behaviours of the alleged perpetrator, especially a family member, can understandably be very difficult for older people. They need to be able to talk to someone they know and trust.

It is important to remember that elder abuse can happen to any older person, irrespective of their gender, economic means and background, says Jenny Blakey.

To guard against elder abuse, older people should make sure their legal affairs, such as power of attorney, are in order. They must also be empowered to recognise signs of elder abuse from their adult children, other family members, neighbours, carers and friends, and speak out. I’d encourage anyone who experiences or witnesses elder abuse to seek help, she says.

Where to get help

Seniors Rights Victoria has a free helpline, legal, advocacy and referral service funded by the Victorian Government. This confidential service is staffed by qualified and experienced people and can be contacted on 1300 368 821, 10.00 am–5.00 pm Monday to Friday. Further information, including help sheets and a safety plan, is available at Link

The Office of the Public Advocate Advice Service (call 1300 309 337) can provide advice on a diverse range of matters including:

  • guardianship and administration
  • enduring powers of attorney
  • consent to medical or dental treatment.

If you or someone you know is in an unsafe or life-threatening situation you should ring Victoria Police on 000.

Vivienne’s story

Vivienne was in her late 80s and had been living with her middle-aged son Steven for a number of years following his divorce. Steven received a carer’s pension but did not provide his mother with any real care or financial or domestic support.

Over time, Steve increased his use of drink and drugs, which led him to abuse Vivienne both verbally and psychologically. He took or misused her possessions and made her feel embarrassed to have visitors at the house. Vivienne’s quality of life suffered and she became depressed and fearful.

Seniors Rights Victoria met with Vivienne and assessed her situation. It was clear that she wished to go on offering her son support in relation to his addictions, but felt she could no longer live with his abusive behaviour.

A lawyer from Seniors Rights Victoria wrote to Steven setting a deadline for him to leave the house, while advocates offered her support. Seniors Rights Victoria also identified a range of support services that Steven could access.

These actions had the desired effect. Steven got help for his addictions and modified his behaviour in other ways. Vivienne and Steven continue to live together, and both their relationship and Vivienne’s wellbeing have improved.

Bob’s story

Bob, an 85-year-old man with cognitive decline, was persuaded to relocate to live with a distant relative, Sue, following the death of his wife. Sue took Bob to her solicitor and had Bob appoint her as his financial and medical power of attorney and enduring guardian.

Sue then placed Bob in a makeshift granny flat at the back of her property and took all his credit cards and other identification from him. She gave him limited meals and prevented him from having much to do with the outside world. One day Sue decided to withdraw $60,000 from Bob’s account without his knowledge and used that money to buy a gift for her child. Sue would not allow Bob to return to his own home despite his requests to do so.

Bob, through friends, found Seniors Rights Victoria who assisted him to revoke Sue’s power of attorney, relocate to his home with extra care supports and recover the money from Sue after threatening legal action. Bob is now happy at home.

Reviewed 19 July 2022