Reported elder abuse cases only ‘tip of iceberg’

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by Claire Allison

In its first year operating an elder abuse helpline, Age Concern has worked on 71 cases in Timaru.

Age Concern Canterbury chief executive Simon Templeton said that case load would not reflect the full picture of elder abuse in South Canterbury.

Age Concern Canterbury chief executive Simon Templeton said Timaru’s statistics were very similar to national figures.

Timaru statistics included:

76% of abusers are family members; sons and daughters account for 42%, spouses 20%.

77% of older people who are victims are female.

75% of victims are over the age of 75.

52% of abuse reported is financial abuse.

70% of cases involve psychological abuse.

“One thing we know is that the Age Concern elder abuse response service only ever sees the tip of the iceberg. We know with the literature and studies throughout New Zealand that the statistics are a lot higher.

“A lot goes unreported, and the biggest reason is that it’s a family member committing this awful abuse on older people, so the older people are embarrassed, or they don’t want to cause trouble for a family member, or they’re worried about repercussions.”

Mr Templeton said Age Concern’s caseload had increased a lot over the past five years, and he had no reason to believe Timaru would be any different.

In July last year, Age Concern took over managing the elder abuse response service, marking a change from awareness-raising frontline client contact service.

Mr Templeton said financial abuse could often start with well-meaning family members or carers helping out with grocery shopping.

“It often starts with people thinking they’ll just get a few things for themselves while they’re there, and before you know it, Mum is paying for all the groceries. We’ve had cases that have gone to court, and they’re still saying it was all for Mum.

“So it can often start at that level, but it goes right through to cleaning out bank accounts.”

Mr Templeton said the amount of money did not necessarily reflect the seriousness of the issue.

“Someone might take $200,000 off their mother, but she might have $2million. Or it might be $5000 and that’s all the money they have in the world. We had a gentleman up here saving the money up to buy hearing aids – $5000 – and that money was stolen from him, and he has no chance of saving that again. So it’s a smaller amount, but absolutely life-crippling.”

Drug, alcohol or gambling issues could often be the catalyst for financial abuse.

“Often there’s a trigger there that would make what would normally be loving children behave this way.”

Mr Templeton said the elder abuse response service was completely confidential, and older person-focused.

“We are there to work alongside and support older people, not make decisions for them. We can offer phone support and phone advice, right through to organising family meetings, helping with protection orders, to helping people take things to court.

“That comes right back to Age Concern’s ethos of valuing and respecting older people. The fact that you’ve reached 89 doesn’t mean you don’t get to drive your own life.”