16 June 2020

Exposing barriers to reporting elder abuse and why we must take action

With World Elder Abuse Awareness Day having passed us on 15 June, and increased strains on family relationships and responsibilities in the era of social isolation, there has never been a more prudent time to bring the issue into the public eye.


A study conducted by the National Ageing Research Institute’s Professor Briony Dow and colleagues, aimed to understand older people’s experiences of elder abuse and the barriers to reporting it. Elder abuse is an intentional act, or failure to act, causing harm or risk to an older adult, by a person in a trusted relationship.

Perpetrators of elder abuse are frequently the adult children of the victim. It’s this relationship that often contributes to the reluctance of older adults to seek help.

According to Professor Dow, director of the National Research Ageing Institute (NARI), most victims, “just want the abuse to stop,” without consequences for adult aged children, such as being in trouble from the law. For example, if the perpetrator has issues with drug and alcohol, ideally this should be managed to help stop the abuse, but often this has repercussions which exacerbate the older person’s predicament even further.

In her study, Professor Dow conducted interviews with 25 clients of Seniors Rights Victoria (SRV). Participants were aged between 62 and 89 years of age, with an average age of 75 years. Approximately two thirds of participants were female and one third were male.

The study found that barriers to reporting abuse included

  • Fear of negative consequences for the abuser

  • Fear of negative consequences to themselves

  • Belief that the abuse was not the perpetrator’s fault

  • Fear or experience of shame and embarrassment


Relationships Australia recognises the many forms of elder abuse, which include: physical abuse, psychological/emotional abuse, social abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Elder abuse impacts a victim’s physical, mental and social well-being.


Elder abuse often goes unreported. While it is estimated that between 2% and 10% of older Australians may have experienced elder abuse, the rates could be much higher.


Professor Dow recognises that elder abuse is a complex social issue and identifies a range of reasons as to why abuse may be occurring:


  • Ageism

  • Inheritance impatience

  • Personal issues experienced by the perpetrator such as gambling



What can be done?

Professor Dow and colleagues recognise some key strategies to help tackle this issue:

  • Address shame and stigma surrounding the reporting of elder abuse committed by adult children

  • Raise awareness with campaigns and educational resources using lived experience of older people who have experienced abuse

  • Educate older adults on what constitutes elder abuse

  • Take action and offer support earlier when there is less likelihood of adverse consequences

  • Recognise the unique characteristics of the parent-child relationship and the way they can affect an older person’s ability to seek help

  • Identify broader social barriers, such as risk of homelessness, either for the perpetrator or the older person

  • Consider broader social services in responding to elder abuse, such as housing services, financial counselling and assistance.


Next steps

The Australian Institute of Family Studies is currently conducting research to uncover more information in regards to elder abuse in Australia.


What if you or someone you know is experiencing abuse?

If you feel you are experiencing abuse and need some help, you can contact:


Professor Dow advises, “If you think you may be being abused but are unsure please seek advice. Remember abuse exists in many formats”.

Professor Briony Dow


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