Age Concern New Zealand research has put elder abuse firmly in context as a form of family violence. Analysis of cases of elder abuse and neglect reported to Age Concern shows that older people are most likely to be abused by family members and in their own homes.

Seventy percent of abusers are family/whanau members, most commonly sons or daughters (40% of all abusers). They continue to be the most common abuser type irrespective of the client’s living situation. Older abusers (those aged 65+ years of age) are more likely to be husbands.
Family violence continues to occur even for older people living in residential care. Sixty-six percent of abuse or neglect experienced by older people in residential care was attributed to family members.

The data is based on referrals to Age Concern’s Elder Abuse and Neglect Services from mid-2002 to mid-2004; 1,288 cases in all. It is likely these referrals represent only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ for abuse in New Zealand (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1998). This trend is corroborated by US research findings, which estimate that just 16% of all abuse incidents reach service agencies.

There have been no population-based investigations of elder abuse and/or neglect in Aotearoa New Zealand. Prevalence rates in published international studies vary greatly (Spadafora, 2005). Studies involving community-based surveys within developed nations (including Australia, Canada and the UK) indicate the proportion of older people experiencing abuse or neglect as ranging between 3 and 10% of the senior population. (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2002).

Translation of these estimates to New Zealand’s 65+ population suggests there could be between 13,500 and 45,000 individuals experiencing abuse or neglect within this age group (Statistics New Zealand, 2001). “While knowledge about elder abuse is increasing, in many ways the campaign is only at the point that ‘domestic violence’ had reached in the 1970s,
or child abuse in the 1980s,” Age Concern New Zealand’s president Jill Williams said in a recent speech. “At this early stage of awareness, doubters may question the size or severity of the problem. Some may even deny it exists at all.”

Elder abuse occurring within families is a form of family violence and shares ma

ny of the same characteristics. Older people/kaumatua/kuia and families are often isolated, in a weakened, powerless and dependent position and commonly lack support. There may be a history of family conflict and/or family violence, alcohol/drug abuse, psychological problems,
low self-esteem, and reduced social networks. Like other forms of family violence, elder abuse and neglect often remains private and is largely hidden and under-reported.

There are also factors that may be unique to elder abuse.

Diminishing networks resulting from frailty or declining physical or mental health may mean that elder abuse and neglect is easier to conceal and harder to detect than other forms of family violence.

Age Concern’s analysis has found that older people most frequently experience psychological abuse (59% of the cases reported). This includes verbal abuse used to intimidate, humiliate, harass or control choices. This may have wide ranging and long-term effects on physical and mental health.

The second most common form of abuse experienced is material/financial abuse (42%), the illegal or improper exploitation and/or use of funds or other resources. This can include, for example, misusage of a parent’s debit or credit card for unauthorised transactions, or parents ‘loaning money’ to children who then refuse to pay it back. Forty-two cases were
identified as involving misuse of Enduring Power of Attorney.

Physical abuse (12%), the infliction of physical pain, injury or force, including activities such as intentional over/under medicating, was less common and was more likely to be performed by husbands. Sexual abuse occurred within 2% of the cases reported.

Age Concern New Zealand Chief Executive Ann Martin has called for the whole community to challenge ageist attitudes, “the key to stopping elder abuse is empowering older people and their carers and giving them the respect they deserve.”

The full report Age Concern Elder Abuse and Neglect Prevention Services – An Analysis of Referrals for the Period: 1 July 2002 to 30 June 2004 is available at www.ageconcern.org.nz.

Spadafora, P. (2005). Elder abuse and neglect: A global challenge, global solutions. Global Ageing: Issues and Action, 3(1), 5-9. Statistics New Zealand. (2001). 2001 Census of population and dwellings. Wellington, New Zealand: Author.

United Nations Economic and Social Council. (2002). Report of the Secretary General: Abuse of older persons: Recognizing and responding to abuse of older persons in a global context. New York: Author.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging. (September 1998). The National Elder Abuse Incidence Study: Final Report. Washington, D.C.: Author.