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Hospitals can be front line in uncovering hidden problem of elder abuse

June 2017

St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne – the first health service in Australia to collect data on cases of suspected elder abuse – has welcomed a major new report into addressing the often hidden problem and called on governments to embrace its recommendations.

The Australian Law Reform Commission’s Elder Abuse—A National Legal Response calls on the Commonwealth to develop a National Plan to combat elder abuse – including establishing a national policy framework and setting priorities for action on the problem – in cooperation with state and territory governments.

Meghan O’Brien, Senior Social Worker at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, said elder abuse in Australia was significantly under-reported and hospitals could be a major part of the solution.

“Elder abuse is one of the hidden shames of our community. It’s hard to imagine a more vulnerable group,” said Ms O’Brien.

“Older people have a high hospitalisation rate, which means hospitals are an ideal place to detect and manage the problem. Hospitals offer a window of opportunity.

“But the challenge is that healthcare staff often lack the training to recognise the signs of abuse and the knowledge in how to respond.

“In 2009, St Vincent’s put in place an Elder Abuse Governance Framework which has equipped staff to better identify and respond to elder abuse among older patients, and be sensitive to their choices and safety.

“We have established a Vulnerable Older People Coordination and Response Group made up of senior staff at the hospital, which collects and reviews data relating to suspected cases of elder abuse and advises on policy and continuous improvement.

“Because of our efforts, we’re now finding that among the older patients we suspect of being abused, around 65 per cent are disclosing to a health professional about their situation.

“Around one third of older people experiencing elder abuse that we’ve identified are males, 49 per cent are aged over 80 years old, and most live in the same home or are dependent on the person causing the abuse.

“In close to one-third of the cases of abuse we’ve identified, it is the older person’s son who was responsible; and more than half come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, with many needing interpreters.

“It’s also not uncommon to find people experiencing more than one type of abuse – either financial, physical, psychological, neglect or sexual.

“I’m particularly glad to see the Law Commission’s report emphasise the importance of health professionals embedding legal services or utilising pro bono legal resources to better respond to elder abuse.

“In 2016, St Vincent’s Melbourne, Justice Connect Seniors Law, and Seniors Rights Victoria established Australia’s first Health Justice Partnership for vulnerable older people at risk of elder abuse presenting to a hospital.

“Through the partnership we have a senior lawyer based at St Vincent’s up to three days a week linked to our Social Work Department to assist staff in managing elder abuse.

“In a little over a year, the benefits for us and our patients are clear, including better – and faster – access to legal help, particularly for disadvantaged patients who might otherwise not have been able to access help.

“St Vincent’s experience tells us that hospitals absolutely can play a critical role in uncovering this hidden aspect of family violence in a person’s later years.

“My hope is that governments – federal and state – will respond positively to today’s Law Reform Commission report by following through on the recommendation for a coordinated and national response. We all need to work together to address this problem in our ageing society,” said Ms O’Brien.

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