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Specific vulnerable populations: the elderly and disabled - Chapter 10.1

Elder abuse

Last revised: 15 Jan 2020

Key messages

  • Abuse may be physical, emotional, sexual or financial and may include neglect. It can occur in an aged care facility or in the community 11
  • Risk factors for elder abuse can be related to the individual, the perpetrator, relationships and the wider environment 248, 249
Table 1

Table 1

Coding scheme used for levels of evidence and grades of recommendation 

Recommendation
Elder abuse needs to be considered by any health practitioner seeing elderly patients, as they have a pivotal role in the recognition, assessment, understanding and management of elder abuse and neglect

If confronted with elder abuse, establish the patient’s capacity to make decisions. Help may need to be sought from the person legally responsible for giving consent for their healthcare. If this person is the abuser, then seek help from the appropriate advocacy source in your state or territory

Elder abuse is defined as any type of abuse – physical, emotional, sexual, economic – or neglect of people aged 65 years or over, either in an residential aged care facility (RACF), in private care, or living independently. It can be 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.11 Elder abuse occurs in all cultural and socioeconomic strata whenever there is an imbalance of power252 and is linked to increased mortality and disability.253

Abuse may occur to an elderly person being cared for by family or other community carers, or in an RACF and hospital when the frailty of elderly residents renders them unable to defend themselves. An abuser may be a family member or carer, and in the case of older persons in residential care, the abuser may be another resident (sometimes with dementia), a staff member (including volunteers), visitors or family members.

Elder abuse may occur for many reasons, covering individual, relationship, community and sociocultural causative factors.252 For example, caring for a family member means there may be a change in role where the carer becomes the ‘parent’ and the ‘parent’ becomes the ’child’. This increasing dependency can be frustrating and act as a catalyst for abusive behaviour by the carer, particularly if the carer is insufficiently supported.

The ongoing safety of the patient is paramount. Safety may only be achieved by transferring the patient from home or from the RACF. For elderly people the fear of retribution is strong and may be contributing to their unwillingness to disclose.11

There are no recent national statistics in relation to elder abuse254 and few worldwide. A NSW study of clients referred to an Aged Care Assessment Service showed that 4.6% of older people living in the community and referred to the Aged Care Assessment Service had experienced elder abuse.255 A study of four Aged Care Assessment Teams in QLD, WA and NSW showed a prevalence rate of 2.3%256 and a study in a large regional aged care service in NSW found 5.4% of clients referred had also experienced elder abuse.257 In studies in the United States (where participants aged 60 and over are included), the prevalence of elder abuse ranged from 11.4% to 14.1%.248,258 Apart from the age of those participants included in the studies, discrepancies in prevalence rates may be due to issues of definition as some types of elder abuse were not included.254

In addition, there may be five unreported instances of abuse to every one reported.259 The real prevalence of elder abuse is obscured due to a number of factors, including fear of retribution when reporting a complaint. The ageing of Australia’s population and the increasing numbers of adults with dementia contribute to the anticipated growth in the prevalence of elder abuse.260

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) stipulates in its position statement on the care of older people that GPs have a ‘pivotal role in the recognition, assessment, understanding and management of elder abuse and neglect’.250

GPs are often the first independent professional to see an elderly victim of abuse. There are a number of reasons why medical practitioners may not have been more involved in managing cases of abuse. These include lack of awareness, insufficient knowledge regarding identification or follow-up of a potential case, ethical issues, time constraints, and the victim’s potential reluctance to report the abuse.11

Understanding the risk factors for people who abuse vulnerable elders can provide information for intervention and preventive strategies.260

Risk factors can include:248,249

  • individual
    • cognitive impairment
    • behavioural problems
    • psychiatric illness or psychological problems
    • functional dependency
    • poor physical health or frailty
    • low income or wealth
    • trauma or past abuse
    • ethnicity
  • perpetrator
    • caregiver burden or stress
    • psychiatric illness or psychological problems
  • relationship
    • problems within the family
    • relationship conflicts
  • environment
    • low social support
    • living with others (except for financial abuse).

A US study found that community-dwelling middle-aged and older women who reported physical abuse in the preceding year, verbal abuse or both types of abuse had significantly higher adjusted mortality risk than non-abused peers.261

A predisposing factor to elder abuse is dependency caused by physical impairment, dementia, mental illness, stroke, sensory impairment, or intellectual impairment.252 This risk factor occurs regardless of whether the older person is being cared for in the home or in an RACF. However, as the majority of RACF residents have some form of dependency, such as physical or cognitive impairment, the GP and RACF staff should be alert to the possible occurrence of elder abuse.248 Refer to Table 15 for a list of possible signs and symptoms of elder abuse.

Table 15. Possible signs and symptoms of elder abuse

Table 15

Possible signs and symptoms of elder abuse262



If the possibility of abuse is suspected or concern is raised, you can use the consultation time to observe the emotional reactions and body language of the older person and the suspected abuser. Also, you can observe face-to-face interactions between the two. If the patient is in an RACF, remember that an abuser may be another resident (sometimes with dementia), a staff member (including volunteers), visitors or family members.

If the patient has the capacity to give a history, it should be taken without others present. If this history differs from that given by carers or other family members, suspicions should be raised.251 Ask the patient direct questions (refer to Tool 6. Elder Abuse Suspicion Index), and if suspicion of abuse is confirmed, you can request permission from the patient to report the information to the appropriate parties (Table 16). However, although there is no legal compulsion requiring GPs to report elder abuse, any abuse affects the health and wellbeing of the patient and therefore the GP needs to have a response that ensures safety for the patient ( refer to Chapter 13 ).

Management of sexual or physical assault

If you are given permission by the patient, or you are satisfied that there are grounds to believe that the patient has been abused sexually or physically (eg the patient’s guardian has told you of the abuse) you may want to notify the police. Once it is established by the police that abuse has occurred, they will conduct any further notification or questioning.

In criminal cases you should document all injuries and consider photographing injuries before initiating treatment. You will need to gain consent from the patient to photograph injuries. In the case of sexual assault, evidence may need to be collected by forensic examination. Refer to Chapter 9 and resources for details about consulting forensic specialists or referring patients to them.

Table 16. Reporting and documenting

Table 16

Reporting and documenting

Rural and remote communities present another set of challenges associated with the lack of RACFs and access to other services.263 In some rural communities people living in an RACF will be some distance from their families and will be more isolated. There is also the understated issue of maintaining confidentiality within small community groups. Below is a case study from a rural area that illustrates some of the issues.

Case study: Winnie

Winnie, aged 69 years, is fiercely independent and lives by herself in a small country town. She has been a patient of yours for a number of years. She has severe arthritis and requires more and more help with the activities of daily living. Even with regular visits from community services, she finds it difficult to cope, but she is adamant that she doesn’t want to go to the regional hospital.

Eventually she moves in with her daughter and husband and their young sons. The neighbours begin to complain about the noise. Since Winnie has moved in, there is not much space in the house and the children are fighting more often, shouting and generally playing up. Winnie’s daughter receives no help from her other sisters and is expected to cope with the increased washing, cooking and other duties without complaint.

When you make house calls to Winnie you notice that she has marks and bruises on her arms and upper torso. These are explained away by her daughter, who says that she is becoming clumsier and keeps knocking into things. Winnie just shakes her head and says nothing, even when you speak to her in private. You are worried about pressing the issue because your clinic is the only one in town and you do not want to upset anybody.

Diagnosis

GPs need to acknowledge that abuse may be happening in this situation. The Elder Abuse Suspicion Index can help with an assessment.

Management

You may involve the home nursing service, home help, day centre, carer support groups or other local services to relieve the pressure on this family. Another alternative is to seek the help of an aged care assessment team if available. Respite care or admission to an RACF are other options, depending on what is available.

Outcome

Winnie remains in her daughter’s house with some extra aids – for example, a toilet raise, home help for bathing, respite care – which allows her daughter time out of the house; and Winnie attends the day centre once a week. It is unclear that this will alleviate the situation, so it is important to maintain a close watch on Winnie with weekly house calls.

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