Australia has an ageing population, and the potential for elder abuse to affect a significant number of people in the community is very real.
So how do Australian laws respond to elder abuse, and how can they better protect older Australians?
This is a question currently being looked at by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC).
The ALRC is an independent Commonwealth agency that, at the request of the Attorney-General, reviews Commonwealth laws and provides recommendations about how to improve Australia’s laws and make sure that they remain effective and appropriate in a changing world.
The World Health Organisation describes elder abuse as ‘a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person’. Elder abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological, or financial and may be perpetuated by any number of people — service providers, carers, friends or strangers.
The idea of someone being an ‘older’ person is a relative concept—chronologically, medically and culturally. It does not have a precise definition. For some purposes, treating all people of over a particular age as warranting special treatment under the law may be appropriate. For some other purposes, however, it may be better to consider people in light of whether they have a particular vulnerability. For example, people with cognitive impairment—such as dementia—are particularly vulnerable to financial abuse, thought to be the most common form of elder abuse.
Financial abuse is typically perpetrated by family members, for example where adult children take advantage of their parents to access their money, house or savings, for their own use and benefit. Some law reform options, therefore, might be targeted at people who require decision-making support, for example because of dementia, rather than a category of people who are over a certain age.
Alongside ‘protection’, a key principle informing the Inquiry is ‘autonomy’. Older people, and people with cognitive impairment, have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, and to make their own decisions and choices. The ALRC’s task is to balance the rights of older people to their own autonomy with the community’s duty to protect vulnerable people.
In looking at how Commonwealth laws can better protect vulnerable Australians from elder abuse, the ALRC is looking at laws relating to financial institutions, superannuation, social security, living and care arrangements and health. In addition, the ALRC will consider policy and practice guides, codes of conduct, standards, education, information sharing and the interaction of commonwealth, state and territory laws.
The ALRC released an Issues Paper on 15 June 2016 to coincide with World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
The Coalition also announced $15 million to combat elder abuse on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, if re-elected. The announcement was made by Federal Attorney-General George Brandis and includes the establishment of a national elder abuse hotline, training for frontline staff, a study into the prevalence of elder abuse and a national awareness campaign to shift attitudes.
The ALRC is seeking more information from the public on this issue and has called for submissions. People and organisations with experience in this area are encouraged to make submissions, which will help inform proposals for how laws in this area can be strengthened or improved.
The Issues Paper sets out in more detail exactly what the ALRC is looking at and its release follows the announcement of a national inquiry into elder abuse by Senator Brandis in February 2016.
The ALRC is keen to hear stories and perspectives from people who have dementia and those who work with and care for them. You can either respond to specific questions in the Issues Paper, or simply email us with an account of the elder abuse you have experienced or witnessed.
View or download the Elder Abuse Issues Paper.
Dementia Australia also has a number of resources available on this topic to help. Dementia and Your Legal Rights sets out ways you can safeguard your assets and finances and document your wishes.
A discussion paper on Preventing Financial Abuse of People with Dementia was released by Dementia Australia NSW with funding from the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW in June 2014 and a free Q&A sheet funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services is available on Dementia Australia’s website.