Older people were recognised by the RCFV as a priority community affected by family violence. This section highlights the unique ways that family violence may be perpetrated against older people and the barriers they face when trying to report family violence. Improvements are suggested which can be made to data collection practices so that organisations can produce quality administrative data to provide information about the experiences and the impact that family violence has on older people in Victoria.
Terminology and definitions
There are many terms which can be used to describe older people, including elders, seniors and older persons. While these are all acceptable terms, this section will primarily use the term ‘older people’, which is consistent with language used by the RCFV and the AIHW.
|Elder abuse and family violence|
Violence or abuse against older people is more commonly discussed under the term ‘elder abuse’ rather than family violence. While both of these terms refer to a broad range of behaviours including physical, sexual, emotional, psychological or economic abuse, family violence specifies that this behaviour occurs within the context of a family or a familial-like relationship.
While elder abuse and family violence are often discussed as discrete concepts, it should be noted that there is considerable overlap between these topics and they should not be viewed as mutually exclusive behaviours. An analysis of data concerning people seeking help from Seniors Rights Victoria found that approximately 90% of all alleged perpetrators of elder abuse were related to, or were in a de facto relationship with the older person.95 Similarly, carers who abuse older people can be family members, or could meet the definition of a family member under the extended definition of a family member in the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic).
It should be noted that the age used to define older people varies greatly across different departments, services and studies. For many Australian Government departments, including the AIHW, the term ‘older people’ typically refers to individuals aged 65 years and over. Seniors Rights Victoria, however, typically assists people aged 60 years and over, or aged 45 years and over for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Similarly, in Victoria people aged 60 years and over qualify to receive a senior’s card. Agencies may therefore define the age of older people as is necessary for their own internal purposes, and this framework does not suggest a standard age to be used. Rather, the framework suggests improvements which can be made to the overall quality of data collected concerning family violence, so that targeted analysis of populations, including older people, is possible.
According to data published by the AIHW, older people make up 15% of the Australian population and are a diverse group comprised of different socio-economic backgrounds, life experiences and cultures.96 While older people are often associated with poor health and functioning, Australia’s older population is typically living longer and healthier lives than previous generations.97 It should be noted however, that there is an overlap between age and disability, with over half of Victorians aged 65 years and over recorded as having a disability.98 This section of the framework focuses primarily on family violence issues affecting older people, while the ‘People with disabilities’ section addresses issues faced by people with disabilities. As there is considerable overlap between these communities, it is recommended that both sections are considered regarding issues affecting older people experiencing family violence.
Family violence and older people
Existing research on the abuse of older people in Australia indicates that this group should be considered as a priority in future responses to family violence. Elder abuse may take any form of presentation of family violence, however there is a higher prevalence of economic or financial abuse, often arising from a sense of entitlement from an adult child or carer, as well as social and service access isolation. Elder abuse can also resemble other forms of family violence, such as intimate partner violence, including sexual assault, which is experienced by older women.
It has been noted that limited information exists in Australia concerning the prevalence of family violence against older people. The RCFV estimated that elder abuse affects between 5-6% of the population of older people in Australia, however it is suspected that there may be considerable underreporting of incidents.99
In their 2016 research report on elder abuse, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) noted that the growing population of older people in Australia adds additional concern to the prevalence of elder abuse.100 As Australia’s baby boomer population ages and the life expectancy in Australia increases, it is expected that the proportion of the population who are older adults will be higher than ever before.101 As such, there is a concern that rates of elder abuse will rise with the increased population. A growing ageing population reinforces the need to improve the detection of family violence directed at older people, and the availability of victim and perpetrator resources specifically tailored to this population.
Contributing circumstances and specific presentations of family violence risk
There are a number of contributing circumstances associated with older people which can impact the ways that family violence risk presents for this community. These include:
- having a cognitive impairment, diminished capacity or other disabilities102, 103
- recently having lost a spouse
- ongoing or resumed co-habitation with adult children
- being physically dependent on others
- living in poverty, or by contrast, having substantial resources104
- being socially isolated105
- living in rural, regional or remote communities which have reduced access to services106
- having a history of traumatic life events, including prior incidents of interpersonal and domestic violence107
In addition, structural inequality, discrimination and barriers, such as holding age-discriminatory views, including a lack of respect for older people or an opinion that older people are a burden are considered contributing to underlying drivers and intersect with drivers of family violence risk.108 Research and evidence presented to the RCFV suggested that older people can be at a heightened risk for psychological abuse and economic abuse, which includes having finances restricted or controlled by their abuser.109 When reliant on others for care, older people can also be victims of neglect, which includes withholding necessary medication or not receiving adequate personal hygiene care. This supports research by the AIFS, which found that psychological and financial abuse are the most common types of abuse reported by older people. Some studies suggest that “neglect could be as high as 20% among women in the older age group”.110
Research has also found that older people may face multiple kinds of family violence behaviours in combination. In particular, psychological abuse has been observed to accompany financial abuse, as it is thought that psychological abuse aids in grooming for and supporting ongoing financially abusive behaviours.111 An example is an adult child coercing their parent into believing they are no longer capable of controlling their own finances, and that this responsibility should be transferred to them.
Older people are unique from the general population of family violence victims in terms of demographic and relationship characteristics that are associated with victim-survivors and perpetrators. Victoria Police data provided to the RCFV showed that while older women were more likely than men to be affected parties in family violence incidents, “among people aged 65 and older, a higher proportion of victims are men than the proportion of male victims in the younger population”.112 This information indicates that while traditional roles of female victimisation are present in family violence involving older people, males appear more likely to be targeted in old age than at any other age bracket.
Evidence presented by the AIFS contends that most elder abuse perpetrated is intergenerational and typically involves sons perpetrating abuse against their mothers.113 This is consistent with research conducted by the National Ageing Research Institute, which analysed data derived from a record of calls to a helpline operated by Seniors Rights Victoria (SRV), and found that 67% of helpline calls concerned abuse committed by an adult child of the victim, while only 8% concerned abuse from a partner.114
The RCFV additionally noted that unrelated carers and co-residents in shared living facilities also perpetrate abuse against older people which can be considered family violence.115 The increased prevalence of older people who receive care in their home from carers, or who live in retirement villages or aged care facilities, means that this population is exposed to a wider range of potential perpetrators than other family violence victims. The extended definition of a family member discussed on page 29 explains how unrelated individuals may still be considered victims or perpetrators of family violence.
Under-reporting and barriers to accessing services
Under-reporting was recognised by the RCFV to play a major role in the absence of data surrounding older people and family violence.116 It is believed that most crimes against older people go unreported, largely because of complex dynamics and structures which discourage older people from reporting family violence.117
Additional reasons that older people may not disclose a family violence incident include:
- an expectation that women are to remain in abusive relationships, or that family violence matters should be dealt with privately or within the family118
- a failure to recognise that they are a victim of family violence, including a view that abusive behaviour is a normal part of relationships or of ageing119
- a reluctance to report an adult child in order to preserve family relationships or avoid invoking punitive actions against the perpetrator120
- a fear that if an abusive caregiver is removed, they will lose access to care, or will face an unchosen change in living circumstances121
Other issues contributing to the lack of data on family violence and older people include poor recognition from professionals working with older people of family violence and elder abuse indicators, a reluctance to report or respond to violence and abuse and a lack of infrastructure in place to collect adequate data on the subject.122
Why do we need to collect information on older people?
Presently, there is limited information collected in both surveys and administrative data which can be used to make informed decisions about service use, responsive intervention strategies and risk assessment factors. This section highlights current gaps in information concerning family violence and older people.
Gaps in information
Limited survey data
There are few large-scale national level surveys which directly inform about family violence and the experiences of older people. Population-based surveys which collect information about abuse of older people in Australia exist, however the scope and coverage of these surveys is limited. The Personal Safety Survey (PSS) developed by the ABS collects information from men and women aged 18 years and over about the nature and extent of experiences of violence since the age of 15 years.123 Although the survey does include responses from older people, the types of abuse included in the survey are limited to physical and sexual abuse, and to family violence within the context of intimate partner violence. The PSS therefore has limited information on types of family violence associated with elder abuse, including economic abuse or family violence that is committed by adult-children or other family members.
Another major national survey which includes information on abuse involving older people is the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health. This survey contains three cohorts of women of different ages, with one cohort comprised of women born between 1921 and 1926. The survey assesses women’s physical and mental health, as well as psychosocial aspects of health, including measures relevant to vulnerability, coercion, dependence and dejection.124 While this survey is better equipped to capture experiences of psychological abuse and neglect, a limitation is that it does not collect information on perpetrator type, nor does it collect information about the experiences of older males subject to family violence.
Limited scope of family violence services
Despite the broad definition of family violence used in the FVPA, this violence is still often understood as occurring primarily within the context of an intimate partner relationship, and being defined by physical or sexual violence. This is apparent within the scope of many surveys distributed concerning family violence, and in the range of support services offered in response to family violence incidents. In a statement to the RCFV, the Eastern Elder Abuse Network noted that “ the abuse of age specific services for older people experiencing elder abuse means that the abuse will continue to go unnoticed, unreported and unaddressed”.125 Further, the RCFV heard that there were few services for perpetrators of family violence against older people, with “most programs designed for men committing violence against their intimate partner”.126 The narrow scope of available services means that older people are often not included in data collected by family violence services.
Limited administrative data collected
In order to make informed decisions about family violence incidents and service use, high quality administrative data are needed. Gaps in administrative data concerning family violence and older people can be attributed to a number of issues including a reluctance by victims to report abuse, a lack of senior-specific services available to respond to family violence,127 cultural attitudes which normalise family violence behaviour against older people128 and a lack of knowledge by healthcare professionals to identify and respond to suspected family violence.129 Many of these issues combine to form a cycle which perpetuates the lack of data existing on older people and family violence.
Challenges in current data collection practices
Unlike other priority communities covered in this framework, older people can be easy to identify in data if an organisation collects information on a person’s age, and this information is often readily collected across services. Despite this, there are concerns about the under-representation of older people in data surrounding family violence. This may occur because identifying family violence may not be core to the business function of the mainstream organisations that provide services to older people, which can lead to a lack of direction from organisations to collect this type of information. The RCFV noted that aged care facilities and hospitals play “an important role in identifying, reporting and preventing elder abuse”.130 The RCFV heard that health care professionals are more likely to detect elder abuse if they routinely ask older people about abuse, if they have an elder abuse protocol and if they are trained on the relevant law regarding abuse.131 However many organisations that routinely interact with older people may not be collecting information on family violence, despite having opportunities to do so.
Data collection standards for collecting information on older people
Given that the defining characteristic of older people is their age, this framework does not introduce any elderly specific data items beyond those proposed in the ‘General data items’ section. Improvements to data collection practices should instead focus on collecting information which is core to the family violence conduct and that recognises that the type of incidents and perpetrators who are associated with this population may not fit into an organisation’s traditional definition of family violence. This includes:
- information about the type of family violence risk present, which may be any recognised evidence-based risk factor, such as emotional or economic abuse
- the relationship between parties, for example, sibling, child or familial-like carer
This will allow for higher level analysis of the collected information, and in time, grow the evidence base on the types of family violence experienced by this cohort. When collecting data from elderly people, practitioners should also be aware of intersectionalities that may impact a person’s capacity to provide accurate information. The disabilities section within this framework provides some advice on ways to collect data from people who require assistance to communicate, and those with a cognitive disability, which may be relevant to consider in relation to elderly people.
Training and resources
Elder abuse prevention and response online training
Integrated model of care for responding to suspected elder abuse
In response to the findings of the RCFV, the integrated model of care for responding to suspected elder abuse is being trialled at five health service locations to strengthen elder abuse responses and support across the care continuum. The integrated model of care is based on a least restrictive, clientcentred and family-inclusive framework.
Justice Connect Seniors Law
A service which provides free legal services to older people of limited financial circumstances, and assists with legal issues including guardianship and administration, powers of attorney and living
Seniors Rights Victoria
A state-wide service that provides information and responses for older people experiencing abuse.
Services they offer include a helpline, specialist legal services, community education and short-term support and advocacy for individuals.
95 Joosten, M, Dow, B & Blakely, J 2015, Profile of elder abuse in Victoria: Analysis of data about people seeking help from Seniors Rights Victoria, National Ageing Research Institute & Seniors Rights Victoria, Melbourne.
96 AIHW 2017, Older people, viewed 15 June 2018,
98 RCFV 2016, Volume 5 Report and recommendations, p.68.
99 Ibid p.69.
100 Kaspiew, R, Carson, R & Rhoades, H 2016, Elder abuse: Understanding issues, frameworks and responses, AIFS, Melbourne.
101 Ibid p.3.
102 Ibid p.11.
103 RCFV 2016, Volume 5 Report and recommendations, p.84.
105 Kaspiew, R, Carson, R & Rhoades, H 2016, Elder abuse: Understanding issues, frameworks and responses, AIFS, Melbourne, p.13.
106 RCFV 2016, Volume 5 Report and recommendations, p.86.
107 Kaspiew, R, Carson, R & Rhoades, H 2016, Elder abuse: Understanding issues, frameworks and responses, AIFS, Melbourne, p.11.
108 RCFV 2016, Volume 5 Report and recommendations, p.71.
109 Ibid p.69.
110 Kaspiew, R, Carson, R & Rhoades, H 2016, Elder abuse: Understanding issues, frameworks and responses, AIFS, Melbourne, p.7.
111 Ibid p.12.
112 RCFV 2016, Volume 5 Report and recommendations, p.69.
113 Kaspiew, R, Carson, R & Rhoades, H 2016, Elder abuse: Understanding issues, frameworks and responses, AIFS, Melbourne.
114 Joosten, M, Dow, B & Blakely, J 2015, Profile of elder abuse in Victoria: Analysis of data about people seeking help from Seniors Rights Victoria, National Ageing Research Institute & Seniors Rights Victoria, Melbourne.
115 RCFV 2016, Volume 5 Report and recommendations, p.71.
116 Ibid p.80.
117 Ibid p.11.
118 Ibid p.80.
121 Kaspiew, R, Carson, R & Rhoades, H 2016, Elder abuse: Understanding issues, frameworks and responses, AIFS, Melbourne, p.13.
122 RCFV 2016, Volume 5 Report and recommendations, p.81-82.
123 ABS 2017, 4906.0 Personal Safety, Australia, 2016, viewed 19 June 2018,
124 Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health 2018, Study Overview, viewed 19 June 2018,
125 RCFV 2016, Volume 5 Report and recommendations, p.88.
126 Ibid p.89.
127 Ibid p.88.
128 Ibid p.76.
129 Ibid p.77.
130 Ibid p.82.
Reviewed 08 January 2020