Exposing the Silent Epidemic of Elder Abuse

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Imagine watching your mother suffering with dementia in her old age.

Then imagine that your brother is trusted with the power of attorney to look after her finances. Despite having a secure financial safety net that was supposed to allow her to remain at home with in-house care, your brother sells the house. Your mother is evicted and forced to move into an aged care home – but the bills to the aged care provider don’t get paid. Later you discover that a maze of loans have been made from your mother’s bank accounts to your brother and to his businesses, but there is no evidence of them being repaid. Imagine your despair.

This is one of many real-life stories that have been presented to the NSW Upper House Inquiry into elder abuse. The Inquiry has scratched the surface of social tragedy that is unfolding right across the country – the silent epidemic of elder abuse that affects so many people at the end of their lives. Anecdotal evidence has emerged of some aged care providers putting the welfare of residents at risk in order to keep costs as low as possible.

According to the Health Services Union, chronic understaffing in some institutions has led to unrealistic workloads. Inevitably, the standard of care suffers in these situations, causing distress for residents, families and workers alike. While it cannot be said that these problems are systemic, or that this type of abuse is rife, it’s extremely concerning to think that there are some people in care who are slipping between the cracks.

Just as concerning are the reports abuse within the family. The NSW Elder Abuse Helpline and Resource has told the Inquiry that that 71 per cent of incidents reported through its hotline were perpetrated by a family member. Often these complaints involve unscrupulous family members manipulating Power of Attorney laws to access an “early inheritance”. The victims of this particular type of abuse may not be able to complain, or may not even realise they are being manipulated.

Submissions to the Inquiry have suggested a range of different policy solutions to these issues – from better oversight of the aged care sector, to the establishment of a Public Advocate for Older People and a Power of Attorney register, and stronger laws to deter the misuse of Power of Attorney.

All of these deserve careful consideration, because Government must play a leadership role in addressing the crisis in elder abuse. But there is also a role for all of us.

It is too easy for us to dismiss concerns about elder abuse as “none of our business”. But depriving an older person of access to their own wealth can be devastating.

We must stay as vigilant in protecting the rights and welfare of older Australians as we are in protecting our young ones.

Sophie Cotsis is the NSW Shadow Minister for Ageing and a member of the Legislative Council’s Inquiry into Elder Abuse in NSW.

This article was originally published in the Daily Telegraph on 18 February 2016.

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