Proctor : September 2017
24 PROCTOR | September 2017 Elder abuse awareness campaign shines a light into the shadows It was once the case that domestic and family violence was considered by many to be a private matter. Such was the shame and stigma that it was a rare occasion for it to be discussed openly and publicly. This is still the case for a particular type of domestic violence which is affecting our elderly community. Elder abuse has yet to find its way into our discourse to the same degree as spousal or child abuse. Domestic violence awareness campaigns have demonstrated that the key to dealing with widespread social issues is to create a safe and respectful environment to talk about it. Dialogue paves the way forward to finding strategies and solutions to address society’s largest problems. Queensland Law Society president Christine Smyth says that domestic violence awareness campaigns have resulted in many of those subject to spousal abuse speaking out and reporting their abusers. “From this awareness-raising, programs have been actioned to stamp out domestic and family violence,” she said. As Australia’s population grows, and society evolves and changes, elder abuse is emerging into the public consciousness as another form of domestic and family violence. Elder abuse was recognised as a form of domestic violence in the ‘Not Now, Not Ever’ report1 and, until recently, had escaped focus largely due to the natural repugnancy at the thought of family members inflicting abuse on an elderly, fragile and vulnerable relative. Fortunately, with campaigns such as the annual World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (June 15), this issue is gaining necessary attention. This year the awareness day saw the launch of an elder abuse awareness trial campaign by Queensland Law Society and the Australian Medical Association Queensland (AMAQ) aimed at raising awareness and reporting figures. Since June 15, there has been an increase in calls to touch-points for victims such as the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit Queensland, and the QLS Find a Solicitor referral service. Community awareness of the issue has also bourgeoned, with about 400 mentions of the campaign and elder abuse across television, radio, print and online publications including social media platforms. Staff at QLS are also on high alert when speaking to elderly callers and directing them towards solicitors focused on elder abuse when they think abuse may be occurring. As an accredited specialist in succession law, Ms Smyth sees the impact of this abuse in her day-to-day practice. With the majority of her clients being either elderly or the relatives of deceased elderly people who have been subjected to abuse in their lifetime, she said the trail of devastation left behind could continue for many years after the elderly person had passed away. Ms Smyth and the QLS Elder Law Committee have advocated for better awareness in this area for many years, culminating in a resolution to make inroads into highlighting this issue in 2017. This centres around working with GPs and providing appropriate information tools to start a dialogue in the community about physical, financial, emotional and sexual elder abuse and neglect. The Society recognises that legal professionals are often on the frontlines of domestic, family and elder abuse issues – whether it be by filing orders or appearing in court for the victims or perpetrators. Queensland solicitors are trusted advisers from whom their clients seek advice on a variety of matters. Ms Smyth noted that clients will rarely see their solicitor specifically for elder abuse. “Often the signs are subtle and not readily evident,” she said. “This makes it very difficult to identify and action. But the consequences are devastating.” This year, as president of the Society, Ms Smyth was instrumental in the implementation of the trial campaign, targeting areas of Queensland from north Brisbane to Kilcoy. When speaking about the trial, Ms Smyth said that the aim was to give a voice to the voiceless and empower those affected to seek assistance. “It is imperative that we shine a light into the shadows cast by the scourge of elder abuse, and help those suffering to know that it is ok to speak out and seek help,” she said. “We have identified that GPs are not only leaders within our communities, but oftentimes the only person an elderly person visits frequently by themselves.” With the backing of Ms Smyth and the Elder Law Committee, Society policy solicitor Vanessa Krulin coordinated the facilitation of GP packs to 321 practices, with the aim of increasing awareness of and reporting of abuse, and collecting real data on the issue. Ms Smyth said that elder abuse was a growing issue that had to be addressed, and warned that the impacts of an increasingly elderly population would only exacerbate the issue if it was not properly dealt with. “In 2016, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) published an issues paper2 on elder abuse, stating that those over 65 years will make up 21% of Australia’s population by 2040,” she said. “If our older population will increase by 2040, issues the current generation are facing must be addressed in the coming years to avoid catastrophe in the future.” A community legal centre solicitor and chair of Queensland Law Society’s Elder Law Committee, Kirsty Mackie, said that one of the biggest problems in combating elder abuse was the issue of ageism. “The ALRC report recognised that it was essential to educate the general community on the multiple benefits of older people on our society,” she said. Anecdotally, there are many reasons why elder abuse may be grossly underreported, including fear or confusion about what is being done to the elderly person and whether or not they feel at risk of suffering further consequences if they report the abuse. “Those suffering from abuse should feel safe and not be afraid to speak up,” Ms Smyth said. Another issue that arises is that of the perpetrators not recognising their behaviour as constituting abuse. “Perpetrators of the abuse must become unequivocally aware that what they are doing is in fact abuse and is wrong,” Ms Smyth said.