More cases of elder abuse reported after earthquakes

NICOLE MATHEWSON
Last updated 05:00 29/10/2012

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Elderly people are more vulnerable since the Canterbury earthquakes, with more abuse and neglect incidents reported.

Lynne Gibbons tells stories of elderly people being forced into a bank to get money that will be taken from them by a younger relative waiting outside.

The community health nurse says that since the Canterbury earthquakes there have been cases where a family member has "intimidated or stressed" an older person into letting them take over their claim with the Earthquake Commission (EQC).

The younger family member would keep the money from the claim, with EQC never knowing what happened. Gibbons, who works for Age Concern Canterbury, said the organisation dealt with up to 12 elder-abuse cases each month. Elder abuse related to abuse perpetrated by someone in a trusted relationship with an elderly person. It could be physical, sexual, psychological or financial, or it could be related to neglect.

The problem was "rife within the community" but remained largely hidden, with many cases going unreported, she said.

"More often than not it's a family matter, and people won't speak out about family matters." She said the issues were usually multi-layered and often stemmed from lack of respect for an elderly person's quality of life.

Elderly people with disabilities and chronic illness were particularly vulnerable as they were often socially isolated and relied on others. "Sadly, people may take advantage or over-step the rights and decisions of older people," she said.

Fellow Age Concern Canterbury community health nurse Kerry Howley said there had been an initial spike in elder-abuse cases after the region's quakes.

"Families were pushed together and all were stressed and all were confined. We can cope with stress if there's an end to it, but it was just going on and on." Since then, she said, the numbers seemed to go back to normal, but the cases had become more complex.

"There was a fear that there would be financial abuse with payouts from earthquake damage . . . and there's been a few cases."

Howley said it was difficult to know just how prevalent elder abuse was as agencies did not share their data. Clinical social work specialist Suzanne Edmonds told the recent College of Nurses Aotearoa symposium in Christchurch that there had "definitely" been an increase in referrals for elder abuse since the September 2010 and February 2011 quakes. "I've heard myself in moving about the community that it's not just something that happens in isolated ways."

However, it was possible not all of it was intentional, she said.

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"Carers can be so stressed or unwell themselves that they're causing harm," She believed the most common form of elder abuse was financial and often happened when an abuser was financially dependent on an older person.

"Since the earthquakes that's been a very common thing - families have been pushed together, they've needed to borrow money, been stressed." Changes to the Crimes Act had brought the issue of elder abuse into the spotlight, she said.

The act, which came into effect in March, created a new offence of failing to protect a child or vulnerable adult from the risk of death, grievous bodily harm or sexual assault.

"It talks about people who have frequent contact with a vulnerable adult . . . who sees what is happening but doesn't do anything about it." Elder abuse was "very much a community problem" and it was important for health professionals to watch out for it, she said.

Canterbury police family violence co-ordinator Pegeen O'Rourke Harris said elder abuse was "kind of that unspoken thing". "It's probably one of the most under-reported things.

Many may not even recognise they were being abused," she said.

"They wouldn't necessarily even call it abuse that the grandson hits them up for $80 every time he visits and they need him to come and mow the lawn or carry the groceries," O'Rourke Harris said.

Gibbons said it was important for people to seek advice if they suspected someone was being abused or exploited. Age Concern could provide free and confidential advice, respond to situations where an older person's safety or wellbeing was at risk, provide assessment and intervention services and work with family and service providers, she said.

For help Contact Age Concern Canterbury: Phone - 366 0903 or 0800 80 33 44 or  http://ageconcerncan.org.nz/news/

BY THE NUMBERS

Age Concern Canterbury deals with 10 to 12 cases of elderly abuse each month, but others would be identified by other agencies, including health providers, police and lawyers.

Of the cases reported to Age Concern nationally: Up to 70 per cent of victims are women.

40 per cent to 46 per cent of abused elderly people live alone.

Up to 80 per cent of abuse is committed by family members and 50 per cent of abusers are adult children. Up to 35 per cent of abusers are primary caregivers.

This could be a family member or support worker, or a staff member if the person is living in residential care.

About half of those supported by Age Concern over the past 10 years had their health significantly affected by the abuse they experienced.

Two out of every five abused people experienced a significant reduction in their independence, lost confidence and self-esteem, and reported feeling frightened or anxious and emotionally distressed.

- The Press

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