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Too close for comfort - Elder abuse in Australia today

Written by Liz Moore, Communications Partner with integratedliving

It’s a terrible thought and a devastating reality, but this World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15, it’s important to explore what elder abuse looks like in Australia today. At the end of 2021, it was estimated that one in six Australians aged 65 years and older experienced elder abuse in the previous 12 months. Two thirds of these did not seek assistance when it happened.

This is according to a Federal Government’s National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study carried out by the Australian Institute of Family Studies as part of the National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians. 

The study found that elder abuse affects 15% of older Australians, and can take the following forms, with the prevalence of each one listed beside it: 

  • Psychological abuse (11.7%) 
  • Neglect (2.9%) 
  • Financial abuse (2.1%) 
  • Physical abuse (1.8%) 
  • Sexual abuse (1%)  

4% of respondents said experienced multiple forms of abuse in that time.  


The study surveyed 7,000 people aged 65 and over who live in the community, rather than in residential aged-care settings.

It also surveyed 3,400 people aged 18-64 years focusing on their knowledge of elder abuse, attitudes to older people, and the extent to which the person provided assistance to older people.

Some more key findings include: 

  • People with poor physical or psychological health and higher levels of social isolation are more likely to experience elder abuse.  
  • Most victims do not seek help after they’ve been abused. 
  • The most frequent action to stop the abuse was found to be the victim speaking directly to the perpetrator.  
  • Perpetrators are often family members, most commonly the adult children of the victims, they can also be friends, neighbours and acquaintances.  
  • Family and friends are also the most common source of support for older people who experience abuse. 

It is this link to family, especially the adult children of abuse victims, that can cause the most apprehension in people who might otherwise want to report the abuse or are unclear on whether their situation constitutes abuse. integratedliving Australia Psychologist, Daniela Anderson, suggests a good barometer as to whether abuse is occurring from a family member, and whether you should do something about it, is to consider whether you would tolerate the same behaviour from a neighbour you’re not close with.

“We can get blurred when it comes to elder abuse, and how much we should tolerate,”
Ms Anderson said. “Things that you would not put up with from the neighbours, such as a physical assault, someone stealing from you, somebody verbally abusing you over the fence. They’re not things most people would tolerate, but it’s a lot harder and becomes more blurred in someone’s mind when it is a family member doing it because of that close bond and that feeling of responsibility.”

Ms Anderson said there can be a lot more shame attached to abuse when it’s perpetrated by someone’s family members, especially a person’s own children. “It doesn’t fit with our ideas about how the relationship is supposed to go, and there’s that shame or that feeling of responsibility. 

“The responsibility that says ‘well, I raised them, so this must be why they’re the way they are’. Also, that feeling of responsibility that ‘I’ve got to make sure they don’t get in trouble,’ or ‘this could ruin their life if I report this’, or ‘if I stop them taking my money, they won’t be able to pay their bills and something bad will happen’,” she said. 

Ms Anderson acknowledges that it is really hard to report people who are close to the victim. “I’d also try to reassure victims of elder abuse by their relatives, especially adult children, that there is no reason that is their fault as to why this is happening, because there’s that belief that I raised them, this is ‘on me’. To that I say, no, we’re not born and raised in this vacuum where it’s just what our parents put in, and we’re not born this blank slate and our entire personality depends on what our parents did. 

“Regardless of whether you think you were a great parent, or you’re more realistic and think you fell down every now and again, there’s no reason why a grown adult should be abusing you,” Ms Anderson said. “They know it’s the wrong thing if they’re doing it out of that malice or out of personal gain. You didn’t fail as a parent just because one or more of your children have done this to you.” 

If you suspect you may have been a victim of elder abuse, there is help. Please call the National Elder Abuse help line: 1800 ELDERHelp (1800 353 374).   

1800ELDERHelp automatically redirects callers seeking information or advice on elder abuse to their state or territory phone line service. If you require assistance in an emergency or life-threatening situation, you should dial 000.