“If you were in my position, what would you do to fix aged care?”
When Maria Berry was asked this question by Sussan Ley in December, she found it difficult to put an answer in words.
At this point, the Wodonga woman had exhausted every avenue available to get help for the elder abuse ripping her family apart.
The abuse, which Mrs Berry can’t detail for legal reasons, has led her on a road to advocacy highlighting the pitfalls of the system in supporting victims.
“I’ve been to every single MP; I’ve been to Sussan Ley, I’ve been to everyone and asked, ‘Will someone help me?’” she said.
“I’ve sent hundreds of emails and kept every single one, contacting medical advocates and the legal powers at be in Melbourne – it’s just gone on and on.
“It’s not that people out there don’t care, we just don’t have the laws in place to protect the elderly, particularly if it’s to do with guardianship.”
In the experience of Mrs Berry’s family member, the abuse has been devastatingly all-encompassing.
“This person was kept isolated – it was things like the taxi service being told to never pick him up,” she said.
“The biggest issue here in our area is that we’re in rural, isolated country areas, and quite often the victims of elder abuse are not being picked up.
“The perpetrators have all the control to take them to the doctor, take them home, pull the strings with money, and do whatever they want.”
Through the fight to protect her loved one, Mrs Berry’s “rock” has been her uncle, Barry Phillips.
A volunteer of six years with beyondblue, Mr Phillips can see just how far the cracks have formed in their family and in the well-being of those involved.
“Things have been going very wrong, for a very long time,” he said.
“You feel very helpless – the police are on standby, but we can’t do anything, as the perpetrator has all the power.
“Unless you’re very closely involved, people don’t really have an idea and there’s been some terrible things done.”
In many ways, elder abuse shares the same characteristics as family violence.
National Ageing Research Institute research officer Melanie Joosten said it was for this reason the issue had begun to draw public attention in recent years.
“It started to gain light about 10 years ago … the biggest difference has been, in the last 12 months, it’s been accepted as a form of family violence as part of the royal commission,” she said.
But there has still not been a major prevalence study into the issue in Australia.
“An estimated two to six per cent of the older people in Australia are victims, but we have no idea of just how many people are really experiencing this problem,” Ms Joosten said.
“We also don’t know a lot about the motivations behind perpetrators’ behaviour.”
Ms Joosten was involved in a major research project looking at the cases of abuse reported to Senior Rights Victoria.
From 2000 to 2014, 455 cases were documented, with financial and emotional abuse being the top two experiences of older people.
Ms Joosten said in almost 70 per cent of cases, the perpetrator was a son or daughter.
“The family relationship is the biggest hindrance to solving the problem,” she said.
“Parents know they’re being taken advantage of, but don’t want to kick our their son or daughter, so sometimes they decide not to go ahead with intervention such as a family violence order.”
Ms Joosten said in half of cases, the perpetrator was experiencing substance abuse, mental health issues or financial difficulties.
“The perpetrator might have psychological problems, a marriage break down or financial problems, causing them to become desperate,” she said.
“That can lead people to treating their own family members badly.”
Addiction is a major driving force behind abuse, according to Wodonga Senior Citizen’s Club president, Charles Caldwell.
“A lot of it is drug-related and I think the biggest hurdle is to overcome that,” he said.
On Wednesday, for Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Mr Caldwell held a well-attended conference with Senior Rights Victoria in Wodonga.
While almost 50 people gathered, questions were scare.
“People feel a bit ashamed, as it’s in their own family,” Mr Caldwell said.
“They have to seek help – surely there’s something we can do to stamp it out.”
To coincide with the awareness day, it was announced $15 million would be committed to establishing a national hotline, boosting training for front-line staff and conducting the first prevalence study – if the Turnbull government were re-elected.
Aged Care Minister Sussan Ley said she was working on the issue at a local level and had taken Mrs Berry’s advice on board.
“As it was with Maria, every conversation I have discussing someone’s experience with aged care gives me better insight,” she said.
Mrs Berry thinks the road to better prevention is long, but clear – if the right ears are listening.
For one, The Australian Law Reform Commission is seeking submissions on the pitfalls of the legal system in safeguarding the rights of our older generation.
“Unless they get people come forward with some case studies, I’m a bit concerned,” Mrs Berry said.
“At the moment, I believe they’ve got mine and nothing else here rurally, and we’ve got a deadline until August 18.”
Mrs Berry said a lack of resourcing regionally was a huge problem – once the power of attorney was appointed, the onus was on the family to keep the guardian in check.
“There is no administration for guardianship in this area, so if someone needs advocacy, if they’re appointed through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, it goes directly to Melbourne,” she said.
“So these people are four hours away, and when they’re not here things can go wrong.
“There’s just got to be more a few more laws in place, watching.”
The roots of this problem stem far wider than opportunism by a greedy family member, or the desperation of a drug addict.
As a nurse of 18 years in residential aged care facilities, Mrs Berry saw instances of elder abuse “daily”.
“Were are not paying nurses in aged care enough and we don’t feel older people are worthy of the standard of care we give everybody else,” she said.
Mrs Berry detailed her mother’s experience in hospital before she passed away as part of her contribution to a toolkit for best care, and that chilling account is on the Victorian Department of Health’s website.
“Her buzzer was taken off her because she was ringing the bell too often,” it reads.
“Sometimes I'd walk in and… she hadn't had enough to drink and there was the pain, there was the urinary tract infection.”
Underlying all of this, is a need for society to treat the older generation with respect.
“They’ve brought us into this world, fought for our country and done lots of things for us, but at this stage in their life, we’re treating them badly?” Mrs Berry said.
“We can’t be seeing them as a burden, but as the individual people they are – and they have a lot to offer.”
If you or anyone you know is affected by elder abuse, call Senior Rights Victoria on 1300 368 821, or 1800 Respect (1800 737 732).