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Older people

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People in Australia are at increased risk of abuse in their later years. This abuse can take many forms, including psychological or emotional abuse, financial abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect (ALRC 2017).

Elder abuse that occurs in families differs from other types of family and domestic violence because it often involves abuse of parents by adult children (Kaspiew et al. 2015; Qu et al. 2021). Abuse can also occur outside of the family, such as in aged care facilities and health care services (Joosten et al. 2017). Elder abuse can cause a range of physical, psychological, financial and social harms to older people (WHO 2022).

The number of older people in Australia experiencing abuse is likely to increase over time with Australia’s ageing population. While 17% of people in Australia were aged 65 and over in 2021, projections indicate that this group will make up around 21% of the population by 2066 (ABS 2018; 2021).

This page presents data on all forms of elder abuse, but focuses on elder abuse in the context of family, domestic and sexual violence where data are available.

What is elder abuse?

While there is no agreed definition for elder abuse, the definition most commonly used in Australia is from the World Health Organization:

Elder abuse is 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 (WHO 2022).

A key aspect of the definition is that elder abuse occurs in relationships where there is ‘an expectation of trust’. Such relationships include those with family members, friends, neighbours, and some professionals such as paid carers.

In Australia, ‘older people’ are generally defined as those aged 65 and over. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are often included among ‘older people’ from the age of 50 (Kaspiew et al. 2015). These age groups are used to define older people in this page, unless stated otherwise.

What do we know?

Measuring elder abuse

Prevalence estimates of elder abuse vary according to setting, and by who is reporting the abuse. Evidence from international studies show that abuse estimates are higher for older people in institutional settings than in the community. Estimates are also higher where abuse is reported by institutional staff than by older people themselves (Box 1) ( WHO 2022; Yon et al. 2018).

Prevalence estimates are likely to underestimate the true extent of elder abuse. This is because victim-survivors can be reluctant to disclose ill-treatment by a family member, or because they are dependent on the abuser for care (Qu et al. 2021). Older people with cognitive impairment (for example, dementia) or other forms of disability may also be unable to report abuse.

What are the risk factors?

While elder abuse can happen to anyone, certain factors can exacerbate a person’s risk of experiencing or perpetrating elder abuse (Box 2).

Elder abuse follows similar gendered patterns as other forms of family and domestic violence, albeit to a lesser extent. A 2017 review, found that there is a greater likelihood for women being abused (17%) than men (11%) (Ho et al. 2017). Sons are also more likely to perpetrate abuse than daughters (Kaspiew et al. 2015).

Long-term health impacts

Elder abuse can have serious physical and mental health, financial, and social consequences. These include physical injuries, premature mortality, depression, cognitive decline, financial devastation and placement in nursing homes (WHO 2022).

A 2017 systematic review demonstrated that older people who experience abuse are at higher risk of:

  • physical health problems such as bodily pain, diabetes, weight problems, digestive problems, incontinence, allergies and disability
  • psychological problems such as depression, negative emotions, anxiety, stress, suicidal ideation, attempted suicide and sleeping problems
  • social dysfunction
  • increased hospitalisation, visits to emergency department and use of behavioural health services (Yunus et al 2017).

What national data are available to report on elder abuse?

Data are available across a number of surveys and administrative data sources to look at the prevalence, consequences and outcomes of elder abuse, and the responses to it.

What do the data tell us?

1 in 6 people in Australia experience elder abuse

The AIFS National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study (see Box 3) estimated that, in 2020:

  • around 1 in 6 (598,000 or 15%) older people living in the community had experienced elder abuse in the past year
  • 471,300 (12%) had experienced psychological abuse in the past year
  • 115,500 (2.9%) had experienced neglect in the past year
  • 83,800 (2.1%) had experienced financial abuse in the past year
  • 71,900 (1.8%) had experienced physical abuse in the past year
  • 39,500 (1.0%) had experienced sexual abuse in the past year
  • a slightly higher percentage of women than men had experienced any form of elder abuse in the past year. This pattern was also evident for psychological abuse and neglect (Figure 1; Qu et al. 2021).

Figure 1: Prevalence of elder abuse in the past year

Source: AIFS National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study | Data source overview

More than 1 in 4 older people have experienced technology-facilitated abuse

Elder abuse can take many forms. When abuse is conducted via mobile, online and/or digital technologies, it is called technology-facilitated abuse (Powell et al. 2022). Technology-facilitated abuse can encompass many subtypes of abuse, including harassing behaviours, sexual violence and image-based sexual abuse, monitoring and controlling behaviours, and emotional abuse and threats (Powell et al. 2022).

The Australian National Research Organisation on Women’s Safety (Box 4) estimated that:

  • 1 in 3 (33%) people aged 65–74 years have experienced technology-facilitated abuse in their lifetime
  • 1 in 4 (25%) people aged 75 years and over have experienced technology-facilitated abuse in their lifetime
  • in both age groups (65-74 years and 75 years and over), men were more likely than women to have experienced technology-facilitated abuse in their lifetime (Powell et al. 2022).

For more information on technology-facilitated abuse, please see Stalking and surveillance.

3% of older women and 2% of older men had experienced sexual harassment in the last 12 months

The 2021-22 PSS (Box 5) estimated that:

  • 69,600 women aged 65 years and over (3.2%) had experienced sexual harassment in the last 12 months (ABS 2023c).
  • 75,500 men aged 55 years and over (2.2%) had experienced sexual harassment in the last 12 months. This estimate should be used with caution as it has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% (ABS 2023c).
  • 17,300 women aged 55 years and over (0.5%), had experienced sexual violence in the last 2 years. This estimate should be used with caution as it has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% (ABS 2023d).

The latest available data for reporting on stalking experienced by older people is from the 2016 ABS Personal Safety Survey (ABS 2017). This survey estimated that 17,000 older women (0.9%) and 11,400 older men (0.7%) had experienced stalking in the last 12 months. These estimates should be used with caution as they have a relative standard error of 25% to 50%.

Perpetrators differ depending on the type of abuse

The 2021 AIFS study collected information on the perpetrators of elder abuse (Figure 2). While children were the most common perpetrators overall, patterns varied substantially depending on the type of abuse. For instance, psychological, financial and physical abuse were most often perpetrated by children of the older person, but there were almost no reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by children. A similar proportion of perpetrators of neglect were children (24%) and spouse/partners of the older person (25%) (Qu et al. 2021).

Around 1 in 2 (53%) perpetrators of elder abuse were family members (includes ex-partner/spouses). Perpetration by family members was highest for financial abuse (64%) then neglect (60%), psychological abuse (55%), physical abuse (50%) and sexual abuse (15%). Sexual abuse of older people was primarily perpetrated by friends (42%), acquaintances (13%) and neighbours (9%) (Qu et al. 2021).

Figure 2 explores the perpetrators of each type of elder abuse.

Figure 2. Relationship of perpetrators to older person (as % of perpetrators)

A bar chart shows the proportion of elder abuse perpetrators who had each type of relationship with the older person, disaggregated by the type of abuse.

Perpetrators were more likely to be male than female

The AIFS study (Box 6) showed that main perpetrators were:

  • more likely to be male (55%) than female (45%)
  • more likely to be aged 65–74 (23%) or 45–54 years (20%) than any other age
  • more likely to be unemployed (53%) than employed (47%)
  • more likely to live apart from the older person (77%) than to live with them (23%) (Qu et al. 2021).

The majority (72%) of elder abuse victim-survivors indicated that their main perpetrator had one or more problems. The most common problems were mental health issues (32%), followed by financial problems (21%) and physical health problems (20%) (Qu et al. 2021).

What are the responses to elder abuse?

People who experience elder abuse may access many types of informal and formal supports such as family and friends, health professionals and helplines. Information on how victim-survivors seek help can assist understanding and improvement of response strategies. It can also provide information about the extent of under-reporting of elder abuse in data collected as a by-product of service delivery.

Help seeking

  • 1 in 3 people

    in 2021 who had experienced elder abuse had sought help from a third party

    Source: AIFS National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study

Data on advice or support sought after elder abuse are available from the AIFS study. The study estimated that:

  • 1 in 3 (36%) older people in Australia who experienced abuse sought help or advice from a third party such as a family member, friend or professional
  • help seeking was most common after physical abuse, followed by psychological abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse and then neglect
  • of those seeking help, the most common sources of help were family members (41%) and friends (41%), followed by a GP or nurse (29%), a professional carer (24%), the police (17%) and lawyers (15%). Around 1 in 20 (5.3%) contacted a helpline (Qu et al. 2021).

Around 8 in 10 (82%) older people who experienced abuse had taken action to stop the abuse from happening again. These actions included informal actions (such as speaking to the person) and formal actions (such as seeking legal advice). The most common actions were speaking to the person or breaking contact with them.

Figure 3 explores help seeking or advice for each type of elder abuse.

Figure 3: Whether help or advice was sought by people who experienced elder abuse

Source: AIFS National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study | Data source overview

Helplines contacts

Each state and territory in Australia has a telephone helpline for elder abuse (Box 7). These helplines are delivered by a government or non-government organisation in each jurisdiction, and provide confidential information, advice and referrals. Some states and territories publish data about the support services they provide, and these data can provide insight into instances in which elder abuse is identified or suspected.

In 2021–22:

  • the New South Wales helpline received 3,072 reports about abuse of older people (NSW ADC 2022)
  • the Victorian helpline received 3,487 calls (COTA Victoria 2022)
  • the Queensland helpline received 3,841 calls about abuse of older people. This included 2,338 abuse notifications and 1,503 enquiry calls (Gillbard and Leggat-Cook 2022).
  • the Western Australian helpline received 1,330 calls (Advocare 2022)
  • the South Australian helpline received 1,463 calls relating to older people (SA Health 2022).

Work is currently underway to harmonise the data collected across 1800 ELDER Help helplines to improve comparability. For more information about this work, see Key information gaps and development activities.

Police

Some forms of elder abuse that are considered criminal offences under legislation are reported to, and recorded by, police. Data on crime rates make it possible to examine how police are engaged following incidents of violence, such as sexual assault, and violence that occurs in a family and domestic context.

In some cases, there is a delay in the reporting of a crime to police. Crime data can therefore be presented according to the victim’s age at the time of report or by their age at the time of the incident. This section presents data for victims of FDV-related assault who were aged 65 years and over at the time of report. Note that it does not necessarily refer to incidents of elder abuse (that is, violence that occurred while the person was 65 years and over).

Family and domestic violence-related assault

According to 2022 ABS Recorded Crime – Victims data (Box 8) (excluding Victoria and Queensland, see Data sources and technical notes), 37–51% of all assault victims aged 65 years and over at the time of report, were assaulted by a family member or domestic partner in 2022 (ABS 2023b).

The victimisation rate for family and domestic violence assaults (FDV assaults) in 2022 for those aged 65 years and over at the time of report was:

  • around three times as high in the Northern Territory as in other states and territories
  • higher for females than males in New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory
  • higher for males than females in the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania (ABS 2023b).

Figure 4 shows the rates of FDV assault since 2014.

  • The rate of FDV assaults reported in most states and territories remained relatively stable between 2014 and 2022, at 14–132 per 100,000 persons.
  • The Northern Territory had the highest rate of FDV assaults reported to police in every year between 2014 and 2022, while Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory had the lowest rates.
  • The rate of FDV assaults reported in the Northern Territory increased sharply between 2019 and 2022 (ABS 2023b).

Figure 4: Victims of family and domestic violence-related assault, aged 65 years and over, by state, 2014–2022

Source: ABS Recorded Crime - Victims (unpublished) | Data source overview

Sexual assault

The 2022 ABS Recorded Crime – Victims data show 114 male (5.5 per 100,000) and 380 (16.1 per 100,000) female victims of sexual assault aged 65 years and over at the time of report in 2022 (ABS 2023b).

Figure 5 presents the victimisation rate for sexual assault of people aged 65 years and older at the time of report in 2022 (excluding Western Australia), by offender type. It shows that:

  • the highest victimisation rate (9.1 per 100,000) was for females by a non-family member who was known to them (for example, a neighbour or friend)
  • females had a higher victimisation rate than males for each offender type
  • for males and females, the victimisation rate for sexual assault perpetrated by non-family members was higher than by family members (ABS 2023b).

Figure 5: Victims of sexual assault aged 65 years and over (excluding Western Australia), by relationship of offender to victim, 2022

Source: ABS Recorded Crime - Victims (unpublished) | Data source overview

The victimisation rate for FDV-related sexual assault among people aged 65 years and over at the time of the report increased slightly from 0.8 to 1.9 per 100,000 between 2014 and 2022, and was higher for females than males in every year (ABS 2023b).

Specialist homelessness services

Data on assistance provided by specialist homelessness services (SHS) (Box 9) show that:

  • 5,100 females and 4,100 males aged 65 years and over accessed SHS in 2021-22
  • 26% of females (1,300) and 3.7% (150) of males aged 65 years and over who accessed SHS in 2021-22 had experienced family or domestic violence
  • since 2011–12, the proportion of females aged 65 years and over accessing SHS who had experienced FDV decreased slightly from 33% in 2011-12 to 26% in 2021–22 (Figure 6)
  • the proportion of males aged 65 years and over accessing SHS who have experienced FDV fluctuated between 2011–12 and 2021-22, ranging from 3.1% in 2013–14 and 5.9% in 2020–21 (Figure 6) (AIHW 2022a).

Figure 6: Proportion of male and female specialist homelessness services clients aged 65 years and older who experienced family and domestic violence, 2011 to 2021–22

Source: AIHW SHSC | Data source overview

Hospitalisations

In 2021-22, about 160 women and 135 men aged 65 years and over were hospitalised for injuries related to family and domestic violence. Figure 7 shows that:

  • overall, the rate of hospitalisations for injuries caused by a spouse or domestic partners was lower than by other family members
  • women were more likely than men to be hospitalised for injuries caused by a spouse or domestic partner
  • men were more likely than women to be hospitalised for injuries caused by another family member (AIHW 2023).

Figure 7: Family and domestic violence hospitalisations for people aged 65 years and over, by relationship to perpetrator, 2021–22

Source: AIHW NHMD | Data source overview

Has it changed over time?

Some data are available to show how elder abuse has changed over time. These changes may reflect an actual change in the prevalence of elder abuse, an increase in awareness and propensity to report, or a combination of these factors.

Sexual assault in residential aged care

Data from the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission on reports of unlawful sexual contact or inappropriate sexual conduct in residential aged care facilities show:

  • 530 reports between 1 October and 31 December 2021
  • 485 reports from 1 January and 31 March 2022
  • 452 reports between 1 April and 30 June 2022
  • 633 reports between 1 July and 30 September 2022
  • 565 reports between 1 October and 31 December 2022
  • 592 reports between 1 January and 31 March 2023
  • 519 reports between 1 April and 30 June 2023 (Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission 2021; 2022a; 2022b; 2022c; 2022d; 2023a; 2023b).

 For more information, see Sector performance data | Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.

Is it the same for everyone?

Older people in Australia are a diverse group, and experiences of violence and abuse can vary for a number of reasons. Data are available for selected groups of older people in Australia, but should be interpreted with caution due to small sample sizes.

Culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) populations

The AIFS study provides information on the prevalence of elder abuse in Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) population. Note that these findings relate to the CALD population as a whole; conclusions about specific cultures or regions could not be drawn due to small sample sizes.

Key findings were that:

  • A similar proportion of CALD (14%) and non-CALD (15%) participants had experienced elder abuse in the past year.
  • Experiences of each type of abuse (except financial abuse) were similar for CALD and non-CALD participants. Financial abuse was less common for CALD (1.6%) than non-CALD (2.1%) participants.
  • The experience of abuse was slightly higher for CALD women (14.2%) than CALD men (13.8%).
  • Elder abuse decreased with age among the CALD sample (Qu et al. 2021).

Older people with disability or long-term health conditions

Around 50% of people in Australia aged 65 and over have disability (AIHW 2022b). Some studies have suggested that older people with disability may be at increased risk of elder abuse (Storey 2020; WHO 2022). The AIFS study provides estimates of elder abuse for older people in the community who have disability or long-term health conditions. Note that the study excluded older people living in residential care facilities and those who lacked capacity to complete an interview.

The AIFS study shows that 21% of older people with disability or long-term health conditions had experienced elder abuse in the past 12 months (Qu et al. 2021). Older people with a disability or long-term health conditions experienced higher rates of every type of elder abuse than older people without disability or long-term health conditions (Qu et al. 2021).

Regional and remote areas

The AIFS study provides information on the prevalence of elder abuse in the past 12 months by geographic remoteness. Key findings were that:

  • the prevalence of neglect was lower in Outer regional, Remote and Very remote areas (1.0%) than in Major cities (3.0%) and Inner regional areas (3.4%)
  • the prevalence of financial, physical, psychological and sexual abuse were similar across levels of geographic remoteness (Qu et al. 2021).
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