Signs of abuse and what to look for

It can be difficult to tell if an older person is being abused but there are indications when they are at risk, and there are people to turn to if you’re worried about somebody.

Age Concern, which is one of the main providers of services to support those being abused or neglected, says the most vulnerable are those people who are socially isolated.

“[They] are much more at risk of abuse than people who are socially connected, says chief executive Robyn Scott.

Staying socially connected reduces the risk of abuse.

“An older people who is clearly quite socially isolated or withdraws from their friends, or suddenly says they can’t afford to do particular things.

"[They] usually go to the mall to meet you for coffee each week but actually they don’t think they can afford that any more because ‘it’s a bit luxurious’.”

She says it’s necessary to pay attention to those sorts of signs.

“Frequently older people don’t disclose abuse, even to their friends, because of the shame.

“You think back to domestic violence 30 years ago in New Zealand, and still today, in many situations, people don’t confess they’re being beaten or abused or psychologically abused – you find out in other ways.

“You find out when they present at emergency departments time and time again with fractures so people aren’t necessarily going to disclose it.”

Abuse can range from physical harm to superannuation being siphoned off to bank accounts being emptied out.

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 but Ms Scott believes a lot more incidents are hidden.

“Keep a look out that people are seeming well, that they’re not seeming pre-occupied, that they’re not withdrawing from situations that you can’t understand why they’re withdrawing."

Vulnerable and at risk

Clinical leader at WellElder, Janet Robertson, says some older people are more vulnerable than others.

“People who are very involved with their own family and don’t have many other contacts, they have quite a small circle of people they relate to, they can be quite vulnerable.

“Some are very isolated and don’t have many contacts at all.

“Some people are physically quite vulnerable, not able to get out of their homes, and not able to cope in the way that they have over the period when they’ve been more strong physically.”

Ms Scott says in the first instance, if you suspect somebody is being physically abused, call the police.

“If, for example, you thought a person was being physically abused and they were in immediate threat or they were being scammed - if they had disclosed to you that they had spent $2,000 every week for the last six weeks because they were getting all these raffle tickets in the mail, you would go to the police because that’s an immediate threat.”

Otherwise, contact the nearest Age Concern by giving them a call, and they can help you from there.

Man working on car engine

Ms Robertson says the counselling service also checks for risk factors.

“I guess we’d be looking for relationship issues because that’s where elder abuse lies.

“When people come in in a depressed state, it’s really useful to inquire about their relationships with other people.

“One pattern we have seen is older people who have an adult child living with them who might have mental health issues or addiction issues so you have two quite vulnerable people there and that sort of sense of stuckness.

“What can a person do? They don’t really like it, they don’t think it’s good for either them or their son or daughter, but there doesn’t seem to be much other option.”

Depending on others

The clinical leader says they’ve come across other difficult circumstances in a supported living situation.

“We’ve had somebody who really wanted to have more physio to get more mobile and the rest home didn’t seem to be open to that,” says Ms Robertson.

“Also a very difficult situation for somebody who wanted to get up and use the toilet with help in the night, and the staff for some reason were not able to do that and they said ‘no, you just have to urinate in the pad that you’re wearing’ and that of course was really demeaning for the person.

“Yet she felt she would get a negative reaction if she made too much of a fuss or complained too much about that.

“So, when you’re dependent on the goodwill of people to look after you, that can be really, really difficult.

“You want to be one of those people in a rest home who the caregivers like and want to help but yet also, you want to maintain your dignity.”

Changing society's attitudes

Ms Scott says there needs to be a change in society in order to reduce the incidence of elder abuse.

“I think there’s a major mind shift needed in how we value older people.

“Valuing older people and respecting older people’s rights is a societal shift away from ‘just another older person’ and how we do that, I really don’t know.

“There needs to be some really good thinking into how we think about older people, how we think about their rights, how we prompt safe and good conversations around older people’s future.”

Ms Scott says now people are living longer, more thought needs to go into that last phase of life.

“The …thinking is that ‘oh well, once you’ve left work you’re kind of on the scrapheap and you won’t be around for long anyway, you’re just waiting to die, and so you won’t need many resources, you won’t need that much money’.

Elder abuse banner - purple

“There are things that an older person needs to live a quality older life and [they] should be supported to have those things and to have that right rather than thinking you’re at the end of your life, you’re making do.

“If you stopped paid work at 70, you could quite conceivably have 20, 25 or 30 years to plan for to live. You might not either but you might have.

“So, there’s a whole challenge around how we get people thinking about being around for a much longer time. You do not want to be poor when you’re 90, you really don’t.

“When you want a really good hearing aid that costs $8,500 and the state’s subsidy’s $2,000, you want to be able to pay the extra money to get what you need and if you’ve given it all away, or you’ve given it all away against your will, you’ve got far less choices left then, and that’s not how we want to see older people living their lives.

“The older generation we have at the moment is very pre-conditioned to thinking about their grandchildren’s needs, their children’s needs, everybody else’s needs but their own.

“And, so they won’t spend money on things for themselves but say, ‘no I’d rather my grandchild had it or my son needs it for his business so I won’t have [it]’.

“That might change for the baby boomer generation but it’s also conditioned by societal attitude to ‘you’re just an older person’, you’re a bit invisible really.”

Age Concern's 10 tips to promote respect and prevent abuse:

  • Love and cherish your older relatives/whanau
  • Speak respectfully to older people/kaumatua
  • Include older people/kaumatua in your social activities
  • Phone or visit your older relatives/whanau
  • Support older people/kaumatua to spend their money how they wish
  • Encourage and support older people/kaumatua to make their own decisions
  • Honour older people’s/kaumatua’s wisdom
  • Enable older people/kaumatua to walk at their own pace
  • Respect older people’s/kaumatua’s stories
  • Seek advice from an Elder Abuse and Neglect Prevention Service when you think an older person/kaumatua is being abused or neglected.