The extended lockdowns of COVID-19 appear to be over for now but lasting impacts remain. For more at risk older Australians especially, the pandemic endures with social distancing, the need to isolate when unwell and ongoing concerns about illness.
These critical measures have significantly increased social isolation for many people – a that’s also a known risk factor for elder abuse. Connecting with family, friends and the community is not only protective for mental and physical wellbeing, it also protects against the risk of abuse.
Elder abuse takes many forms. It can be financial, emotional, psychological, physical or sexual abuse, or neglect. What’s alarming is that it’s most often carried out by someone close to the older person.
The rise of financial abuse
In December 2021, the Australian Institute of Family Studies published the National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study, fulfilling a key action in the National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians (2019- 2023).
Based on a survey of 7,000 community dwelling people aged 65+, the study provided data on the prevalence of elder abuse in the Australian community and which researchers have long believed is under-reported.
Almost one in six older Australians reported they had experienced abuse in the past 12 months. (It’s important to note the survey was conducted in the community and did not cover people who live in aged care or who could not participate due to cognitive decline.) The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has estimated the prevalence of abuse and neglect in aged care settings is 39.2 per cent.
Financial abuse was one of the most common forms of abuse cited in the study. This type of abuse happens when someone takes away or misuses another person’s money, assets or property.
Russell Westacott, Chair of the Elder Abuse Action Network, says older people are at an increased risk of financial abuse given their circumstances.
“Older people are more likely to live alone, are isolated, or could be living with a physical or mental disability. They might have limited understanding of financial information due to language or cultural barriers and they might be reliant on others for care.
“COVID has exacerbated these factors for some people who have been unable or reluctant to move around in the community to manage their banking and other essential activities,” Westacott says.
The study confirmed an older person’s children are the most common perpetrator group for financial abuse (33 per cent) followed by friends (9 per cent) and then service providers (6 per cent). It also told us 28 per cent of respondents aged over 65 years gave another person access to their bank accounts and PIN numbers.
“Needing support with banking as we get older is common, but this can open the door to abuse. Support is often informal from family and friends and unfortunately perpetrators of financial abuse can be those who we trust and depend on the most,” according to Westacott.
By identifying suspicious transactions and responding to financial abuse, banks play an important role in helping protect older customers.
So how can we strengthen our approach to be more proactive in detecting financial abuse?