We need to protect older people from abuse

| October 15, 2015

Existing laws in Australia don’t effectively protect all older people against abuse. Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan calls for a national approach to tackling elder abuse that focuses on human rights. 

This year, 2015, people aged 85 and over make up around 2% of Australia’s population.[1] That figure will more than double by 2055[2].

One of the biggest challenges of this rapidly changing population is the need to better protect the rights of older Australians against all kinds of abuse.

Elder abuse can occur in many different forms, depending on context, and culture.

In Australia, two nurses were sacked after engaging in a crude game of photographing the genitals of nursing home residents and making sport from them.[3]

An elderly man in a nursing home was denied food because “he was going to die anyway”.[4]

An Indigenous grandmother was reported as saying that she would not take her grandchildren shopping as she did not want them to see her abused.

In Queensland in 2013, the media reported a tragic case where an 88 year old woman died from injuries and neglect, apparently caused by her daughter, who was her carer.

Elder abuse is a global issue. The abuse of older people violates fundamental human rights treaties and principles.

The seminal document is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1947.

Article 1 states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’,

Article 25(1) provides a right to security in old age.

Protections for older people are implied into the core international treaties, the ICCPR and ICESCR.

What is happening in Australia?

These principles are generally recognised, but there are too many cases where practice falls short of our international undertakings.

In recent years we have seen some progress.

State and territory governments have developed their own responses, including training and education, funding of services and specific policies and protocols. While these protections are diverse and often high quality, they do not deal completely with the problem.

The widespread and complex nature of elder abuse requires a coordinated, national response.

The purpose of a national approach would be to streamline current protections and fill in any gaps, particularly in relation to special groups.

The first of these is women.

Women are the most common victims of elder abuse. Because they tend to have lower level incomes, they are particularly damaged by financial abuse.

They are more vulnerable to domestic violence. We still lack DV services targeted at older women.

In the case of older indigenous peoples, I refer to the work of my colleague Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda in raising awareness about ‘lateral violence’, that is conflict that occurs within and among Indigenous communities. Indigenous elders can be targeted.

Older people in in rural and remote areas have vulnerabilities arising from their geographical isolation. This could mean inability to escape abusive situations, the lack of resources, lack of confidentiality, as well as increased risks from gun ownership.

Other groups that require more support are CALD communities, LGBTI people, and people with disability.

A national human rights approach would help these particular groups by providing a broad overarching framework that reinforces the universal rights of all persons including those in minority groups.

A rights-based approach would empower older people to speak out and seek help. Further, it would involve a consideration of the need for and potential value of possible new laws that would create specific offences of elder abuse.

Coordinated training of aged care staff would be a top priority to deal with problems of poor working conditions:  low wages, inadequate staff numbers and insecure work.

A human rights approach would strengthen focus on a people-centered approach to aged care, and the requirement for meaningful participation by older Australians.

The Victorian Parliament this year passed an amendment to the Powers of Attorney Act. The Act now allows a person to appoint a “supportive attorney” who can assist them in making certain, specified types of significant financial transactions.

The NSW Parliament has announced an inquiry into elder abuse.

Despite these initiatives there is still a need for stronger, better coordinated policies and programs to protect older people from abuse anywhere in Australia.

At an international level, I continue to be firmly committed to the development of a convention on the rights of older people.

A binding UN convention could pave the way for the development of a national human rights approach to elder abuse in Australia.

A nationally coordinated human rights based approach would strengthen understanding and respect of older peoples’ rights, promote people-centered decision-making in all the environments in which people age, and bring about a positive change in organisational culture.

[3] Reported in the Sunday Telegraph but the link is dead so here is an alternative reference: Kimberly Pollock, ‘Nurses sacked after crude games with nursing home residents’, Digital Journal (7 March 2011).

[4] Ibid.



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