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Understanding and Ending the Abuse of Older People

The World Health Organisation estimates that, globally, one in six elderly people will experience abuse. With the world’s aging population, this means that by 2050, roughly 320 million people aged 65 and over will have been in an abusive situation. Those in the aged-care industry have opportunities to help prevent and end this abuse, and the first step to ending it is to understand it. Unfortunately, it’s a hard topic to research, but experts agree the abuse does not always look the way people expect.

The Figures

Experts on elder abuse say it is underreported and often unrecognised, and reports of abuse often don't receive a proper response. Over 2,200 cases are reported in New Zealand each year, but it’s estimated that 75 percent of cases are never reported. These figures indicate that in New Zealand, about one in every 10 people over the age of 65 will experience abuse.

Anecdotal data suggests only 8 percent of abuse occurs in elder-care facilities. That means 92 percent of abuse happens in homes, and the vast majority of abusers are family members. In fact, half of all abusers of the elderly are children or grandchildren, which is why people are often reluctant to report the abuse they’re experiencing.

Almost 80 percent of abuse includes psychological abuse of some kind, such as threats, humiliation or harassment. Other types of abuse include financial, physical and sexual abuse and neglect. Abuse that does occur in rest homes can include institutional abuse, in which an organisation’s policies cause distress to residents or don’t respect their rights.

Ending Abuse

For operators of residential care homes, the best way to end abuse is to stamp it out in their facilities. The NZ government has regular audits of institutions to help ensure abuse is picked up regularly, but organisations should ensure that both their written and unspoken policies emphasise treating residents with respect and meeting their physical needs.

But abuse in care facilities is only a small proportion of the abuse occurring; in the home, the best way to stop abuse is to recognise when it’s happening. Often people in the aged-care industry see elderly people who live at home, whether it’s in respite or day care, health appointments or through in-home nursing. Educating all staff who come into contact with elderly people on the signs that someone is being abused allows victims to be identified. Staff can then contact the police or Age Concern, who can step in and remove the victim from the unsafe situation.

Often, providing help to caregivers can be all that’s needed to end the abuse. Sometimes caregivers are overwhelmed or don’t know how to provide the care that’s needed to their aging spouses or parents. Providing education, assistance and the occasional respite stops the neglect or physical abuse of the elderly person.

Preventing Abuse

Of course, preventing abuse altogether would be the best outcome. Researchers spoke to people in the industry as well as elderly people, and most agreed that older people are not valued, and this contributed to situations of abuse and neglect. Changing society's attitudes to see elderly people as valuable individuals was seen as essential to ending abuse and neglect.

Additionally, educating elderly people on their rights and how to take action in an abusive situation is key. For many, especially those experiencing financial abuse, a lack of information about how to manage money contributed to the abuse. Encouraging elderly people to make decisions early about their finances and care, especially those at risk of dementia, can help family and the elderly person feel more secure as they age.

Elder abuse is a widespread problem that is often unrecognised and not reported. The aged-care sector is in the unique position of being able to identify abuse that is happening and take steps to end it. Through educating staff and taking a leadership role in changing attitudes in the wider public, the industry can help prevent abuse altogether.