As Australia's aged population grows, so too does crime against them, elder abuse is estimated to affect as many as one in ten seniors.  
By
24 Jun 2013 - 10:02 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

It's an age-old problem - literally - and it's getting worse.

As Australia's aged population grows, so too does crime against them.

Elder abuse is estimated to affect as many as one in ten seniors.

A national conference in Adelaide is urging tougher policies and new laws to tackle what's often a silent crime wave.

"People can be abused regardless of their education, their financial stability, where they live, what culture they come from - it's something that affects potentially every older Australian."

Marilyn Crabtree heads the Aged Rights Advocacy Service in South Australia.

Since its establishment in 1990, the Service has seen a steady increase in abuse of older Australians.

"Well they talk about one in 20 over the age of 65, however if people are a bit older, the "old" old and they're more frail, then their likelihood would increase to one in ten or even more depending on the level of dependency and vulnerability and frailty of the older person."

Marilyn Crabtree says tracking the type and prevalence of abuse across the nation is difficult because each state and territory has different laws, different assessment procedures and different reporting standards.

"It's an exploitation of the older person's rights. And financial abuse would have to be one of the most commonly reported forms of abuse that we see, and usually psychological abuse would go along with that because people intimidate you, you know, they don't just ask nicely can you please give me a cheque for $10,000: they intimidate you into giving them the money."

Those abusers can be relatives, carers - or strangers.

Frequently, aged parents are stripped of their savings by children who have Power of Attorney over their affairs - some 44 per cent of elders suffer financial abuse.

Carers too might take financial advantage of their charges, sometimes intimidating or physically assaulting them to get what they want - about 33 per cent of elder abuse is psychological and about 10 per cent is estimated to be physical.

And the elderly are more vulnerable than most to predations by strangers, from scammers and thieves posing as door-to-door salespeople, by phone or online.

Megan Mitchell, from the Australian Human Rights Commission, told the conference that the very old, women and those in minority groups are at greatest risk.

"Two important minority groups that require more attention and support are culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and people with a disability. Older people from these groups may have additional vulnerabilities arising from continuing discrimination during their lives."

Paul Greenwood is a San Diego District Attorney who specialises in prosecuting cases of elder abuse.

He says the US has statutes specifying elder abuse as a crime in its own right - and thinks that's a path Australia should follow.

"Is now the time to start proposing new legislation? I could not do my job in California were it not for the fact that we have specific statutes that deal with the crime of elder abuse and cover physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial exploitation. Victims? The criteria is: anyone over the age of 65. Perpetrator? Anybody."

He says there's no doubt there's a demand in Australia for such laws and the demand is growing.

"Do you have elders in your community? Yes we do. Then you have elder abuse. It's just a matter of priority and digging below the surface. We've been told that elder abuse nationally in Australia and the United States we're 30 years behind where we were with child abuse and domestic violence. But we want to catch up. And I think today and tomorrow is a starting point in this country to do just that. And why is it going to be such a significant issue in coming years? Demographics. A quarter of the population in 2050 will be over the age of 65."

Paul Greenwood says specific laws are just the start, and lead to a bigger challenge - convincing the justice system to be more proactive in pursuing cases of elder abuse, because old people are themselves often too frightened or disempowered to act.

"What I've learned, ladies and gentlemen, over 17 years of doing these prosecutions of elders being victims, I've learned one thing. There are times, too many times, when these victims are overlooked and ignored. I've set about, and I know it's very unusual to do this, but I've set about trying to find cases out there. That's very unusual. Typically prosecutors only react to cases brought to them by police. But with elder abuse you can't do that, you have to be proactive. So I've been shaking the bushes for 17 years trying to find victims and unfortunately we found them. And they're here in Adelaide, they're here throughout Australia, and somehow or another we've got to light a fire under every single prosecutor in this country and help them shake the bushes and find our victims. So for the challenge that we face in Australia - the response is willpower and focus by police, prosecutors and the courts."

Megan Mitchell says the Australian Human Rights Commission sees benefit in an Australia-wide overhaul, including a national policy against elder abuse, and potentially even legislation making it a criminal offence.

"The widespread and complex nature of elder abuse requires a coordinated national response, and the purpose of such a national approach would be to streamline current protections and fill in any gaps, particularly in relation to minority groups. The potential development of a clear unified definition of elder abuse in Australia, to resolve current difficulties about the context and parameters of the issue. A consideration of the need for and potential value of possible new laws that would specifically create offences for elder abuse."

As Karen Ashford reports, a national conference in Adelaide is urging tougher policies and new laws to tackle what's often a silent crime wave.