The issue of elder abuse is one that has many faces.
For Maria Berry, who is fighting to save a loved one from abuse, it was the face of a relative she had trusted.
Since she first told her story in June, there have been court dates, meetings with politicians and the Australian Law Reform Commission’s release of a discussion paper.
The paper offers 43 proposals, including a national elder abuse prevalence study, giving state public advocates the power to investigate abuse and ensuring the Department of Human Services and banks develop prevention plans.
Mrs Berry has two new advocates by her side as she sifts through the proposals – Wodonga women Leanne Jenvey and Elsa Bolton.
Ms Jenvey believes of the reforms, a reportable incidents scheme in the aged care sector is most important.
“We need to be going down the path of mandatory reporting,” she said.
“We have it with children – what is the difference between a child and an elderly person or a person with a dementia, who cannot speak for themselves?”
Between 2012 and 2014, 90 per cent of victims reporting to the Seniors Rights Victoria Helpline experienced abuse from someone they knew and the NSW Elder Abuse Helpline found similar rates of 71 per cent.
There is no data on the prevalence of abuse in aged care facilities.
Due to this, Mrs Berry believes the abuse of older people is where “family violence was 20 years ago”.
Mrs Berry said there was poor recognition of varying forms of abuse – aged care providers are required to report only certain allegations.
The ALRC paper also states a provider is not required to take any ‘action’ in response to assault, other than to report it and maintain records.
“Sexual and physical abuse are reportable, but as far as I’m aware, no other forms are,” Mrs Berry said.
“You do an incident report, and sometimes if you’re time poor, there is no report.
“Then it goes to the middle management and it sits in the in-try or disappears.”
Aged care reforms only scratches the surface of what needs to change.
There are many pitfalls in the system relating to Mrs Berry’s case, which is before court again next week.
The women continue to push for action – Ms Jenvey only hopes it doesn’t come too late.
“We’re going to lose another generation before something gets done,” she said.
“They’re the generation where you don’t complain; they may not see a person as their abuser.
“You read their death notice, if anyone has thought to put one in.
“We don’t want to blame people – we want to make this system the best it can be.
“That is what these people deserve.”
Elsa Bolton is scared to put her husband in respite while she has an operation.
The Wodonga woman has concerns about the level of care in some Border institutions – where she believes elder abuse is facilitated by lack of resources and awareness.
“My husband has dementia and I would be very unwilling to put him in a nursing home,” she said.
“There are good meaning people that go into these positions, but they’re so totally frustrated and driven into the ground from exhaustion.
“They’re getting rosters of 10 and 11 days straight.”
Mrs Bolton said in one Southern NSW home, nurses turned a blind eye or were scared to speak out.
“Take for example, the lifters used for frail people – operating the lifters on your own is instant dismissal, but the staff are so thin on the ground, they’re closing their eyes to it,” she said.
“Untrained staff are dispensing medications.”
“One lady got up and charged into a board meeting and said, ‘How would you like to be getting fed party pies and sausage rolls?
“The residents are being fed things they can pick up and eat with their fingers, because there was not the staff to actually physically feed the residents who can’t manipulate cutlery.
“A lot of staff won’t saying anything because they feel they’ll get a black mark against their name.
“I think workforce inadequacy is a really big driver of a lot of these problems.”
Border advocates will be waiting with bated breath for the federal government’s response when the attorney general’s report on elder abuse is handed over in May.
Disability Advocacy and Information Service executive officer Martin Butcher said the general community should also take note.
“The abuse of older people in all forms is very prevalent, particularly around financial abuse,” he said.
“We’ve had to help in the past with power of attorney … where they sold the house and went on holidays.
“It happens often and there’s no register of who is enduring power of attorney.”
A submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission said this problem meant for a third party such as a bank or aged care facility, there was no way of to confirm enduring powers of attorney documents were valid.
Mr Butcher said it was crucial a proposed national register be implemented to address this.
“We would like to think around people being appointed power of attorney or guardianship, there would be clear guidelines of what the role is and for any misappropriation of funds, make it a criminal offence,” he said.
The federal government committed $15 million in June to the establishment of a national elder abuse hotline, a prevalence study and training for front-line staff.
A spokesperson for the attorney-general’s department did not say when these measures would be implemented but said research on developing the hotline would be undertaken “early in the 2017/2018 financial year”.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies has been engaged “to develop appropriate methodologies for researching the national prevalence of elder abuse”.
Indi MP Cathy McGowan said she would be working with the federal government once Attorney-General George Brandis released his final report in May.
“I’m optimistic, because the government has been saying all the right things,” she said.
“The call to action is for people for whom this is a concern to get a copy of the report and write to the attorney-general.”
Submissions on the Elder Abuse Discussion Paper are open until Monday, February 27 and can be made at: www.alrc.gov.au/content/elder-abuse-dp83.
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