COVID-19 raises elder abuse concerns

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic older Australians who are experiencing or at at risk of…

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic older Australians who are experiencing or at at risk of experiencing elder abuse are more socially isolated than ever, writes Colette Bots.

Colette Bots

The question of how to address this has been on the minds of lawyers and social workers across the nation’s seniors legal and support services since the pandemic saw older Australians told to self-isolate to avoid the risk of infection.

What our older at-risk Australians are experiencing is unprecedented and raises many questions about what will happen to them during the pandemic and how we can best be there for them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted upon life all over the world, but no cohort in the Australian population has been more affected than older people. 

Disproportionate risk

Seniors bear a disproportionate risk of death resulting from coronavirus. In Australia by April 2020 a vast majority of deaths due to the virus have been of older people.  Due to their heightened risk they have also been subject to stricter recommendations around movement than others in the community, with the federal government recommending that people over the age of 70 should stay home and self-isolate.

In this climate of increased social isolation barriers to accessing legal and social support are now amplified for older persons experiencing elder abuse.

On a daily basis we rely on various health professionals, including our GPs, nurses, social workers and respite centre workers to identify elder abuse red flags and assist in connecting older persons with legal or social support. We are also highly dependent upon red flag ‘noticers’ within our communities, including our hair dressers and bank staff. With older persons now effectively isolated from both formal and informal support systems, who will notice the red flags now?

Queensland’s Care Army is building up its volunteer base to connect with older persons who need assistance.  However, without specific training on how to recognise elder abuse and how to respond, the opportunity for an additional “noticer” may be lost.

Reticence to take action

Experience tells us that isolation can be used as a means of violence and control by abusers. A recent case where a man had been subject to long-term domestic violence by his wife was only discovered when a respite centre worker noticed the man’s black eye. His wife had been monitoring his mail and online banking and limiting his social outings.

Current circumstances limiting social opportunities, combined with stressors such as job loss and financial worries, increase our concerns for the wellbeing of the people we are here to service.  

Prior to the intrusion of COVID-19 many of our clients were already hesitant to take legal action against financially and emotionally abusive family members, opting instead to tolerate abusive adult children living in their home.

It can take years for an older person to reach a point where they are ready to take legal action against a family member. Many people never will. Many simply do not know how to. Reasons for this inaction range from fear of repercussion in the form of violence, to simply wanting to help their child even if it means sacrificing their own wellbeing.

Our seniors are at a greater risk than ever right now, so how can we better reach out to offer help to those who are suffering in silence?

Mental health

It is becoming widely accepted that the mental health implications of isolation measures may be severe. We need to remain conscious of the reality that social distancing measures increase older persons’ isolation and loneliness, which in turn increases their barriers to accessing help.

Many people are using digital technology to stay connected, however, given the lower rates of use of technology by seniors there must be other approaches in order to ensure that people without access to technology are not left behind.

Internationally, measures such as telephone helplines and radio programs are being used to ensure people of all ages have access to information. We can keep our seniors informed in this way but how are they going to communicate with us and who is going to teach them how to use modern technology?

While services assisting people experiencing domestic violence have at this time received additional funding, this has not been the case for all.

We need to remember that a person’s basic human right to equal treatment does not diminish with age. We must consider innovative ways to raise awareness about social isolation and elder abuse during this critical time.

We must create answers to these questions. What are we going to do for our seniors most at risk?

*Colette Bots is Director, Family, Domestic Violence and Elder Law Practice at Caxton Legal Centre.

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Tags: Caxton Legal Centre, colette Bots, covid-19, elder-abuse,

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