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4th National Elder Abuse Conference

Discrimination Age Discrimination

Good morning.

I would like to start by acknowledging and paying my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations, and their elders past and present.

I congratulate the Attorney General, the Hon George Brandis QC on his opening remarks and I hope we all accept the challenges he has set us to find effective ways of tackling the widespread and damaging incidence of elder abuse throughout the Australian community.

Until recently we had not focused nationally on this scourge.

But this national conference is a most timely way of achieving a strong new focus.

I congratulate the AG for leading action in this area, and I congratulate Seniors Rights Victoria and the Council on the Ageing for organising the 4th National Elder Abuse Conference.

The problem of elder abuse is of huge proportions, if only because of the dramatic increases in our longevity, particularly the marked increase over recent decades. And longevity continues to increase.

It is worth repeating as a reminder that at present people aged 85 and over make up around 2% of Australia’s population. The most recent Intergenerational Report projects that that figure will more than double by 2055. 

So both the absolute numbers and the proportion of Australians living into their 80s and beyond indicate that we have an ever growing cohort of citizens who are very old, and often frail.

These are our fellow Australians who can be vulnerable to elder abuse.

From this picture we must understand that one of the biggest human rights challenges facing all of us is the need to better protect the rights of older Australians, and ensure they are free from all kinds of abuse.

While at this stage of consideration we lack agreed nationwide legal definitions of elder abuse, we do know many facts about it. We know what it is.

We know it takes different forms, depending on context, culture, circumstances. It can be physical, psychological, emotional or sexual.  It can result from extreme neglect. Probably the most prevalent abuse is financial abuse.

This refers to cheating older people out of their assets, stealing their resources, defrauding them, or bullying them to hand over their property. Financial abuse is commonly perpetrated by family members or trusted friends.

All of us here today have heard many stories of such awful behaviours. The stories we hear highlight the vulnerability of older people and their susceptibility to vicious treatment, even causing their death.

How often does it occur? I am frequently asked this question, and actually at this stage I can’t give a precise answer.

We do however have strong indications, and the short answer is - a lot!

The World Health Organisation estimates that, globally, around 1 in 10 older people experience elder abuse each month.

Such figures probably underestimate the prevalence because the victims often don’t speak up or report the incident.

Why does elder abuse occur?

In an affluent society like Australia, well supported as we are by accessible health and legal services, publicly funded safety nets and a diverse and active NGO sector, why are such horrors perpetrated, against our elders, the very people who deserve our respect and care?

From my work over the last 5 years as Age Discrimination Commissioner, I would say that damaging social attitudes play a significant part.

In Australia as in other western societies there is a general negative attitude towards ageing and older people. This damaging attitude is manifested in the patronising and negative stereotypes of older people commonly portrayed in our media  and in our public discourse.

The Commission’s recent research report Fact of fiction? Stereotypes of older Australians reveals the high prevalence of negative stereotypes as well as the underrepresentation of older people in media and advertising.

Older people when they do appear are portrayed almost universally as frail, depressed, needy, out of touch, lonely, isolated, and grumpy.

These attitudes create a fertile ground for age discrimination which can lead on to elder abuse.

Current evidence shows that in our society ageist attitudes and stereotypes still prevail, especially in the employment of older workers.

  • The Commission’s National prevalence survey of age discrimination in the workplace found that over a quarter (27%) of Australians aged 50 years and over indicated that they had experienced some form of age discrimination on at least one occasion in the workplace in the last two years. 
  • A third (33%) of people who had been discriminated against gave up looking for work as a result of experiencing age discrimination.

Such discrimination disconnects older Australians from the workforce, preventing them from participating fully in society.

I believe there is a connection between age discrimination at work and the incidence of elder abuse later on in life. If people as they pass middle age are discarded and overlooked, they are more likely to enter their older age, lacking in a sense of independence, lacking a sense of control over their affairs, lacking confidence and with poorer health than they could enjoy. And probably grumpy!

Other forms of discrimination are faced by minority groups: people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. LGBTI people and indigenous citizens. These discriminations compound the effects of ageism. Language barriers, absence of culturally appropriate services, lack of a support infrastructure within some community groups, and so on, make detecting and responding appropriately to abuse in these communities a major challenge.

What is currently being done?

Elder abuse started to be recognised as an issue in the 1990s, when state and territory governments commenced developing their own responses to the issue. These took the form of training and education, funding of existing services, the setting up of new services such as helplines and developing specific policies and protocols.

Across the country, we now have a diverse range of programs delivered by state and local government and the community sector.

There have been other recent positive developments.

The Victorian Parliament passed an amendment to the Powers of Attorney Act in 2015 allowing a person to appoint a “supportive attorney” who can assist them in making certain, specified types of decisions. We are waiting to see how this change is implemented and what practical assistance it provides.

The Queensland Parliament concluded its Inquiry into the adequacy of existing financial protections for Queensland’s seniors in August 2015. Notably, Recommendation 30 of that Inquiry recommended that the Queensland Government commission a study into the prevalence of this form of elder abuse.

The NSW Parliament is currently conducting an inquiry into elder abuse, and examining its prevalence.

So there is much practical work being done, not to mention the plethora of academic research as well.

But what is needed now is a coordinated national strategy.

A national human rights-based approach would provide a broad overarching values framework reinforcing the universal rights of all persons including those in minority groups.

A coordinated, national approach would help streamline current protections and identify the gaps.

At the outset of this work we need a national prevalence study on elder abuse.

We need comprehensive national data so we can better understand the extent and nature of the problem that we are dealing with.

I hope a national strategy would include a communications campaign raising the community’s awareness of the universality of human rights, the way elder abuse destroys these rights, the damage we do by accepting the negative social stereotypes that impact on the self-esteem and independence of older people, and of course such a campaign would highlight the need for vigilance and action.

The establishment of a national elder abuse hotline could improve the dissemination of information to members of the public by acting as a one stop shop, directing people to the relevant state-based elder abuse hotlines, or to other advice on specific issues like financial planning, banking, powers of attorney and wills.

Providing better education to older Australians of their rights is key to preventing elder abuse. Everyone in the community needs to know basic things like: What are the signs of elder abuse? What do you do when you spot it? Who should you call? Where do you go for more information?

I believe groups like COTA and National Seniors hold great potential to play an educative role through their membership and networks, helping to empower our community.

The other area that demands national attention is the training of age care workers.

These workers, particularly those who deliver care in the home, must be better trained and trained to observe signs of abuse, and to understand what actions to take when they see troubling signs in their client.

GPs and community nurses are at the coal face and also need further information and support.

Our police forces deal with these cases in their worst forms and we must take their advice on how to intervene before terrible acts are committed.

Bank officers and financial planners can often be the first to spot financial abuse and need training to enable them to take protective action.

I see value in the establishment of a national secretariat and clearing house to better coordinate work in this area, to drive law reform, direction of research, and to inform strategies for prevention and education.

Where to next?

Addressing elder abuse requires many different strategies and responses but should take into account the following:

  • The diverse population of older people, including those from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and those who identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex;
  • Older people from low socio-economic backgrounds; while noting that this abuse occurs in all socio-economic settings; and
  • The barriers for older people in seeking assistance and support.

As this Conference will no doubt demonstrate, the involvement of all stakeholders is crucial – government, so ably represented here today by the AG, relevant professionals, NGOs, experts in the field and of course older people themselves.

Older Australians have the right to live contented and safe lives, protected from all forms of abuse.

To achieve this objective, a nationally coordinated approach such as I have suggested this morning would set us all along the right path.

Thank you.

The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner

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