Your stories—Associate Professor Briony Dow

February 2018

We’re starting to hear more and more about elder abuse. But what is it, why does it occur and how can you safeguard yourself against it? Briony Dow, Associate Professor of Ageing at the University of Melbourne and Director of the National Ageing Research Institute, helps us understand more about this complex issue.

How would you define elder abuse?

Using the World Health Organisation’s current definition, it’s either an act—or a failure to act—that causes harm and distress to an older person, but happens within a relationship of trust. Usually, it’s a family member or someone who’s providing care to an older person. It’s categorised into six different types of abuse: financial (the most common), emotional, sexual, physical, neglect, and social—whereby the abuser will isolate the older person so they can’t communicate with their friends or anyone who provides support.

Why are we hearing more about elder abuse?

We have more older people, so we therefore have more elder abuse. But I also think there are some intergenerational issues that are playing out more strongly now. The older people probably tend to be more asset-rich than perhaps younger generations. We’re seeing more family breakdowns, and people with drug and alcohol problems living into older age. Often it’s this cohort of the community that are abusing their parents.

What should we be mindful of in our relationships with older relatives?

Treat older people with respect. Assume capacity rather than incapacity, unless there’s a reason not to. If you’re a carer for someone with an illness, it’s important you get the support you need—care for yourself, have breaks, and call on your family and friends to support you. The carer role is often left to just one person, so that’s something people from our generation need to be thinking about as our parents age.

What are your tips for older people?

If you’re concerned you might be a victim of elder abuse, call the helpline in your state and get advice about what you need to do.

When we spoke to older people who had experienced this, their advice was, “Don’t sell your house, give money or mortgage your home. Think carefully before you go and live with your children or your in-laws. Take full control of your finances, regardless of what your children promise or what they say they will do.”

My ideal retirement?

Retirement isn’t that far away for me! It’s likely to last a long time for my generation, so I see myself travelling but also contributing to the community through volunteer or part-time paid work. My friends and I have discussed designing and building our own retirement living which would be intergenerational. We’d have young people there, perhaps single mums looking for work who want to care for us. How long I need to keep working for to fund my retirement? I’m not sure.