Emma Micola

Associate

As a result of a recent public awareness campaign, you may have noticed lately the term ‘elder abuse’ being thrown around on TV or the radio. This term was thrust into the spotlight as a result of the ‘Not Now Not Ever: Putting an end to domestic and family violence in Queensland’ report delivered to the Premier in early 2015.  The report made 140 recommendations based on the insights gathered from 5 months of engagement with communities and individuals[1].  One of these recommendations was for the Queensland Government to commission a specific review into the prevalence and characteristics of elder abuse in Queensland.  Fast forward two years and we have seen the Queensland Law Society announce a campaign to raise the issue of ‘elder abuse’ by launching a trial that encourages potential victims to disclose suspected abuse with their most trusted confidante – their local doctor[2].  Also, a report from the Australian Law Reform Commission proposes a national response to lessen the risk of financial abuse of older Australians.

The purpose of this article is not to bog down in detail on the varying government reports and law reform but rather to turn your minds to what this abuse actually looks like in everyday life and whether there is anything that can be done about it.

First and foremost, what is elder abuse? A commonly applied definition includes, ‘any act occurring within a relationship where there is an implication of trust, which results in harm to an older person. Abuse may be physical, sexual, financial, psychological, social and/or neglect[3]’.  When reading this definition, it is easy to conjure up images of an ‘undesirable’ man or women who prey on the lonely.  Don’t get me wrong, these people exist, but the harsh truth is that the abuser is quite commonly the elderly person’s child.  The one who taxis mum or dad to go to all their doctors’ appointments, helps them with their weekly shopping or pays their bills.  They are also quite commonly the elderly person’s appointed attorney. Sometimes the abuse starts small, like taking a little bit of extra cash here and there at the teller to help pay some bills (*because after all, I do a lot for mum), it may come as a result of a fall out one child has with a sibling, so the ‘attorney’ child starts to deny the other child access to their parent by severing family relationships.  This type of behaviour can lead to a child wanting to ‘protect’ the ‘future inheritance’ they believe they have ‘earned’ by convincing their parent to transfer assets to them.

Other forms of abuse can include invoking fear into the elderly person by threatening them – this doesn’t have to be a physical threat, it can be a threat to take away beloved pets or belongings or even a threat to put them in a nursing home if they don’t comply. This could also include a child disallowing particular services to a parent as the child is afraid the house they think they are entitled to will be sold to pay for aged care.  The list of possible scenarios is endless.

So what are the warning signs of abuse given this behaviour often happens behind closed doors? The elderly person may become depressed or withdrawn, reluctant to talk to family and friends.  They may be visibly afraid of someone.  Unfortunately however, sometimes there are no signs at all.  Sometimes, it only becomes known once the person has passed away.

While there is legal recourse (in some situations) after a person has died to provide their estate with financial remedies the reality is at that point, the physical, mental and/or financial abuse has occurred. The elderly person had to endure this abuse during their lifetime and they never felt as though they could speak up. This is such a horribly sad thought that any person had to live in this way. I wish I had all the answers to these situations, but unfortunately, I don’t.

As a lawyer however, I can say there are ways to deal with situations where elder abuse is evident. Each case is different and depending on the given situation there are varying remedies and options. Some examples include an application to QCAT to have an attorney removed.  Other situations would require direct contact with the police.

While the legislatures and government are moving toward change in this area and shining a spotlight on the issues, it is really the community, friends and family who need to protect our elderly…elder abuse is not ok, it is not a trade off for being ‘looked after’ by someone, and it certainly should not be pushed under the rug by family and friends under the guise of ‘family business’ or ‘I don’t want to get involved’.

Anyone concerned that someone is suffering elder abuse should immediately seek assistance. There are a range of options including lawyers, doctors, Elder Abuse Helpline (1300 651 192), the Queensland Police and the Office of the Public Guardian.

[1] https://www.communities.qld.gov.au/gateway/end-domestic-family-violence/about/not-now-not-ever-report

[2] http://www.qls.com.au/About_QLS/News_media/News/QLS_announces_trial_to_raise_awareness_of_widespread_hidden_elder_abuse

[3] https://aifs.gov.au/publications/elder-abuse/2-what-elder-abuse; See the Definition of Elder Abuse at: <www.arasagedrights.com/definition-of-elder-abuse.html>.