What is elder abuse?

Older people can experience abuse which can range from superannuation being siphoned off by family members to bank accounts being emptied by “friends” to being physically hit or threatened. 

Walkers in front of women on couch

Abuse which is linked to vulnerability, pressure and coercion has also been experienced by one in ten older New Zealanders, according to the Elder Abuse in New Zealand report by the Office for Seniors.

Age Concern NZ’s chief executive Robyn Scott believes the figure represents what’s being reported, not what's actually happening.

“We see around 2,000 cases a year so what we see is the tip of the iceberg.

“What we see is cases where people feel confident enough to present, and that’s a bit like where domestic violence was 30 years ago. That will only ever be a small proportion of what’s actually going on.”

Ms Scott says if you or somebody you know is being physically abused, go straight to the Police for help.  You can also call Age Concern for help.

She says they’ve worked with a bank for a client whose “friends” were emptying out her bank account, to change the account details so it couldn’t be accessed by others.

There are many such examples, often much closer to home, with 70 per cent of abuse committed by family members.

“Some families [use] the funds that the older person has, for their own ends.

“I think for some, the rot starts setting in [with] universal access to superannuation at 65 and so therefore that becomes a regular income used by other people in the family because it comes in every week.

“They could be buying their groceries every week with [that] superannuation, or it could be more subtle forms of abuse which other people would find hard to accept as such.

“Things like stopping your older relative from having access to the right type of care that they should have.”

Losing an inheritance

Issues include deterring older people who would like to move into a retirement village, says Ms Scott.

“They need to move into a retirement village because they want security, which is the number one reason why people move from their family homes.

"And family members subtly point out that that might not be the best situation for them but the real answer to it is because ‘I don’t want to lose my inheritance’.”

Those in retirement villages have a right to occupy, not own, and Ms Scott says up to 30 per cent of what’s been paid out can be taken by the company to refurbish the villa or unit when the person who was living there dies.

“Cost comes up time and time again,” she says when family members try to persuade older people to stay where they are.

It’s very much about trust.

The World Health Organisation defines 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.”

Ms Scott says the expectation of trust is critical.

“If you’re in a relationship where you would expect trust, then that’s a fundamental tenet of what makes that action abuse because quite often you’ve taken advantage of the trusting situation that you’re in.

Warning signs of possible abuse: Age Concern

  • Unexplained behaviour, sleeping or eating habits
  • Fearfulness and edginess
  • Confusion
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Drowsiness (due to over-medication)
  • Recoiling from touch
  • Unusual withdrawals from bank accounts
  • Unpaid bills, lack of money for necessities

*Age Concern says the warning signs MAY indicate an older person is being abused.

Changing attitudes

Janet Robertson is a clinical leader at WellElder, a community trust which provides counselling sessions for older Wellingtonians.

She says people go to Age Concern as a first port of call but they’ve occasionally heard from clients about situations which appear to verge on abuse.

Man playing solitaire on computer

“Certainly we have people that report to us they don’t like the way that they’re being treated, often by adult children.”

“One of the themes that has come up in groups that WellElder has run, is the way that adult children talk to their parents; things like ‘you used to be a competent person but now you’re absolutely hopeless’.

“Maybe it wouldn’t be regarded as abusive but certainly demeaning.

“In that group, the participants really thought hard about what they wanted to do about that kind of behaviour and the importance of setting up boundaries earlier rather than later because there is the potential for that to escalate and for that to be abusive.”

Ms Robertson says the group session was about reinforcing their belief this was not ok.

“Just because somebody’s old doesn’t mean they’re any less competent or of any less value.

“Sometimes society does give us those kind of messages so it was really that the group reinforced for one another that people have value and they need to tell [those] they’re dealing with, that they won’t put up with being demeaned or belittled.”

“You’re able to share those concerns and not feel you’re isolated and the only one experiencing that so I think that galvanised people to make sure they didn’t continue that pattern.”

Robyn Scott believes certain attitudes make elder abuse more likely.

“A lack of respect, a lack of appreciation that older people have their own hopes and dreams, and lives to lead, activities to do, fun to have.

“And, an attitude of entitlement that’s tied into the lack of respect, ie ‘You’re only an older person, you’ve lived your life, you’ve had all the fun, your needs are simple, you don’t need to be travelling the world’ – all those kinds of things – ‘I’m younger, my needs are much greater, I have a much bigger mortgage than you did at my age’.

“All that kind of self-entitlement, the perception that you’re just an older person, and that you’ve lived your life.”

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three part series on elder abuse. Signs of abuse and the subtlety of abuse will follow.