Elder Abuse: it’s not just about age

Image//Cristian Newman

Image//Cristian Newman

Ageing, as in the grey and wrinkly variety, is rarely spoken about in the youth-obsessed cultures of countries like Australia. The invisibility of older people in the public consciousness is a concern and when older people are treated unfairly and denied opportunities in everyday life then it’s also a clear case of ageism. Just as racism isn’t entirely about race, ageism isn’t simply about chronology, but a form of prejudice that stereotypes difference and erases individual experience.

While luck and good genes certainly play a role, reaching and living though old age also relies on your capacity to maintain a reasonable level of health and wellbeing. Along with physical and cognitive changes, older people must also deal with changing economic, social and cultural circumstances. Retirement, loss of loved ones and social connections, loneliness, migration and increased dependency are just some of the factors that, along with age, can increase an older person’s vulnerability. Yet Australia’s ageing population is often categorised as a homogenous form of ‘diversity’ rather than a population that is in itself diverse.

Elder abuse, as a specific form of violence that affects elderly women, is a good case in point. Elder abuse is generally defined as any harmful act directed at an older person and that occurs within a relationship where there is an expectation of trust. Like all definitions, however, this is only the starting point for understanding what the interconnected issues and solutions might be. Older women, as with the rest of the Australian population, are a diverse group. Understanding the diversity that exists between, across and within certain groups of older women is critical for preventing and responding to elder abuse.

For older immigrant and refugee women, vulnerability is not only tied to all the other vulnerabilities typically tied to older age, but also to their experiences as non-English speakers, as newly-arrived migrants, and/or as carers to their Australian grandchildren. Immigrant women’s reliance on family members for translation and financial transactions, for example, has implications for potential abuse. In addition, intergenerational responsibilities and power dynamics between older women and other family members play out differently across different immigrant groups. All these factors require careful consideration.

If we’re now at a point in time that understands gender needs must be the focus of violence  prevention efforts, then it will serve us well to remember that it is an intersectional, gendered approach that will help us not only identify, but expose the persistent and underlying issues driving violence against women.

The lesser value assigned to older people—particularly older women—might signify our fears about going grey and wrinkly, yet it’s the relative invisibility of older immigrant and refugee women that is perhaps more telling of the deeper thinking required to advance gender equality for all women.

For older immigrant and refugee women, prevention of elder abuse needs to expose and respond to ageism, racism, and other discriminatory practices, all at the same time.

MCWH and the University of Melbourne’s joint submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission can be accessed here.

Gender and elder abuse: what’s the connection?

The Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health and the University of Melbourne made a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission Inquiry on Elder Abuse. The submission draws on recent research that shows that elder abuse is gendered and that immigrant and refugee older women are at particularly risk of physical and sexual abuse due to language barriers, social isolation and dependence on others to access social services. Solutions include providing multilingual education and information for immigrant and refugee women, delivered by female bilingual educators, using a variety of formats and media.