Elder abuse is an increasing problem in our society, often hard to identify and with many ways it can be inflicted on vulnerable older people. It is important to identify the signs of abuse early and understand the available legal rights.

Elder abuse occurs where there is a relationship of trust existing and there is any act resulting in harm to an older person. Such abuse not only includes physical abuse, but can also be emotional, sexual, psychological and financial.

Elder abuse is often inflicted by close family members and such acts may include financial abuse by using an Enduring Power of Attorney document to take money or property without the consent of the older person, selling their possessions without permission or taking money from their pension. It also occurs where a person is harassed to change their Will or transfer their land or denying a person the ability to make their own decisions or control their own finances.

As there are many forms of elder abuse there are many laws both in criminal and civil jurisdictions that may apply. Under the criminal law for example charges such as stealing and fraud may apply where the terms of an Enduring Power of Attorney are abused or by taking money or property from a person without their consent. Where physical abuse occurs charges may include assault, serious assault, deprivation of liberty and criminal negligence. Where property damage occurs charges may include wilful damage.

In circumstances where property such as land has been transferred without consent or by duress the Courts have the power to make orders for the land to be transferred back or sold and the proceeds returned to the claimant. If the older person has died and their Will has been altered either by duress or at a time when they did not have the mental capacity the Will can be challenged in the Court by interested persons and in appropriate circumstances the previous Will upheld.

Elder abuse is complex and many times the perpetrators remain concealed behind family relationships or because of fear by the victim. Many older people do not report elder abuse, particularly where it is committed by a close family member because of fear of retaliation, embarrassment, shame or that it may lead to them being forced into a nursing home.

It is important for friends, family and medical professionals to make themselves aware of the signs of abuse and when appropriate seek professional advice and assistance. Where elder abuse is occurring or suspected it is important to seek legal advice as soon as possible to understand what rights are available and what actions can be taken to prevent it continuing. Lawyers are bound by strict rules of confidentiality and a person should not fear seeking professional advice.

In an emergency situations a person should call Triple Zero (000), the government has also setup an Elder Abuse Helpline for free confidential advice – 1300 651 192 (Queensland only) or (07) 3867 2525 (rest of Australia). Also the Office of the Public Guardian is an independent body setup to protect the rights and interests of adults who have an impaired capacity to make their own decisions.