Women, Ageism and Elder Abuse

Ageism, or the devaluing of older people, differently impacts on women due to the overlay of sexist attitudes on women’s worth, and elder abuse is one of its worst manifestations. Today’s Scorecard identifies key areas for an improved policy response.

Scorecard on Women and Policy provided by Caitlin Evans, Seniors Rights Victoria

Topic: Family Violence

Sub-topic: Elder abuse

Ageism in Australia

Ageism can be defined as a process of stereotyping and discriminating against a person or people, simply because they are older. Ageism is endemic in our society. Older people often feel patronized or ‘invisible’ and can find it much harder to get or maintain a job, access healthcare, services or housing, or enjoy all manner of things our community has to offer because of how their age is judged.  In an Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) study, for example, 71 percent of Australian adults over 65 reported that they had been insulted or mistreated on the basis of their age. With Australia’s - and the global - population getting older, ageism is a serious human rights issue for us all.

Placing a gender lens on ageism

Ageism can affect any older person but it tends to affect women more. Studies show that, because of gender inequity, older women experience elder abuse and workplace discrimination more than men, as well as more sexist and ageist representation in language and the media. Women tend to be viewed as less valuable as they age because they have different traits than those considered desirable in a woman: reproductive ability and conventional ‘attractiveness’. See the COTA Vic paper, Voices of Older People: Older Women on Gender Equality. We all need to fight ageism because it is one of our society’s most glaring results of sexist standards.

Ageism underpins elder abuse

Elder abuse is one of the worst manifestations of ageism and gender inequality, and is a relatively hidden form of family violence. Elder abuse is defined as any act which causes harm to an older person and is carried out by someone in a position of trust – most often a family member. The abuse may be physical, social, financial, psychological or sexual and can include mistreatment and neglect. Like other forms of family violence, it is about a person (or persons) abusing their power and control over another, and most of the victims are women. While elder abuse is vastly under-reported, the World Health Organisation estimates up to 10 per cent of older people worldwide experience it.

A study by the National Ageing Research Institute of Seniors Rights Victoria data over two years showed that in all categories of abuse (apart from neglect), the older person who suffers abuse is more likely to be female than male, and the total number of older women reporting abuse was approximately 2.5 times that of older men. Over 75% of callers to Seniors Rights Victoria’s Helpline are women.  A typical scenario is that of an adult male child, often in his 50s, moving back home with Mum after experiencing problems (relationship breakdown, financial difficulties, substance abuse) and the situation deteriorating into abuse over time.

Elder abuse needs a stronger, coordinated policy response

Seniors Rights Victoria’s policy positions on a range of issues to do with elder abuse, including gender, may be found in our recent submissions to the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence and Australian Law Reform Commission Inquiry into elder abuse. Some of our recommendations include:

1.    As elder abuse is largely situated within close family relationships and stems from attitudes of disrespect, Senior Rights Victoria recommends that the ‘respectful relationships’ education provided in schools be expanded to include elder abuse as a manifestation of ageism. There are common themes of gender, power, violence and respect. Public awareness campaigns are also vital, as is addressing multiple problems in the justice system.

2.    Ensuring proper oversite for people acting on behalf of older relatives, including providing a method for older people to report that they are not receiving proper care.

3.    Changing the operation of the Granny Flat Rules in Assets for Care arrangements to enable pensioners to retain ownership of their principal residence without it impacting their pension.

4.    Adapting current banking industry guidelines on elder abuse as mandatory requirements of the Banking Code of Practice.

5.    Implementing mandatory Family Agreements as part of the Centrelink requirements in Assets for Care arrangements to help resolve financial arrangements should a change of circumstance occur.

6.    Improving police training to enable members to respond more effectively to situations of elder abuse, and increase the numbers of police with specialist capability in this area.

Older Victorians experiencing elder abuse can get help by calling Seniors Rights Victoria on 1300 368 821 Monday to Friday, from 10 am to 5 pm. Services include a Helpline, specialist legal services, short-term support and advocacy for individuals and community and professional education. Seniors Rights Victoria is supported by the Victorian Government: www.seniorsrights.org.au.

This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  womenspolicy@goodshep.org.au  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen