REACH OUT AND RECONNECT: Do you know someone at risk of elder abuse?

REACH OUT: Senior constable Krystle Wilcox is the Aged Crime Prevention Officer for Port Stephens - Hunter Police District. Her role is to provide support to vulnerable victims.
REACH OUT: Senior constable Krystle Wilcox is the Aged Crime Prevention Officer for Port Stephens - Hunter Police District. Her role is to provide support to vulnerable victims.

An absence of long-term specific data on elder abuse, along with the stigma around reporting it and a lack of awareness of support available, may combining factors that are masking dire circumstances faced by older residents in Port Stephens.

There is little by way of age-specific statistics on the issue, however the Australian Institute of Family Studies website estimates that between two and 14 per cent of 'older Australians experience elder abuse in any given year, with the prevalence of neglect possibly higher'.

And according to figures from NSW police, more than 90 per cent of perpetrators are family members.

Advocates in the community are urging people to make themselves aware of what constitutes as elder abuse and what support is available for victims.

The push comes as part of the Reach out and Reconnect initiative run by the Examinerand Port Stephens MP Kate Washington which aims to address issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession.

"It's not something that I had much of an understanding of and I don't think many people know what elder abuse exactly looks like," Ms Washington said.

"That would be a good thing to uncover as I'm learning about it too.

"It's not just physical violence, it's financial abuse, isolation and neglect."

A recommendation to come out of a NSW parliamentary inquiry into elder abuse proposed that all police commands in NSW implement a specialist officer to deal with the growing issue in the community.

Following a six-month trial in other parts of the state an Aged Crime Prevention Officer (ACPO) was implemented in the Port Stephens-Hunter Police District in September this year.

Senior Constable Krystle Wilcox was appointed to the role to educate and liaise with the community on not just issues surrounding elder abuse but also disability and homelessness.

"There is definitely a need for this in Port Stephens," Senior Constable Wilcox said.

She said that while instances of elder abuse may be on the increase due to in part, to a previous lack of reporting, an increased awareness that has come out of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and the instigation of ACPO roles, she still believes the issue is a cause for real concern.

"I think it is a real problem," she said.

"It's something that's coming out now because I am here in this role, and obviously getting that information and education out into the community means that people can identify it and report it, but I do think it is happening more so."

According to Senior Constable Wilcox, elder abuse is not limited to physical abuse such as shoving, rough handling, physical or chemical restraint and hitting.

It also includes financial abuse, such as the misuse of money, bank accounts or powers of attorney; psychological abuse in the form of verbal abuse, belittling or name-calling and isolation from others; neglect in failure to provide basic needs and sexual abuse such as unwelcome sexual behaviour, inappropriate washing or handling.

She said it was important that victims were aware that there was support available.

"Report it to police, contact an ambulance in certain cases," she said.

"People can call me or email me or they can ring the Ageing and Disability Abuse Hotline which is fantastic."

Gill Fletcher, a counsellor at the Yacaaba Centre at Nelson Bay said she believed COVID-19 had exacerbated an already existing problem in Port Stephens.

UNDERSTANDING: Dr Elizabeth McEntyre, a Worimi and Wonnarua woman, and Doctor of Social Work said elder abuse within Aboriginal communities was 'complex'.

UNDERSTANDING: Dr Elizabeth McEntyre, a Worimi and Wonnarua woman, and Doctor of Social Work said elder abuse within Aboriginal communities was 'complex'.

"I think it's always been an issue but I think we're seeing more of it now because people were in lock-down for a period of time and not able to get out and about," Ms Fletcher said.

"People don't talk about it, people don't hear about it and therefore people in that age group think they're imagining things or that it's just normal.

"They've lost their normal routine of things that they would get out and about to do, they've lost their sense of independence and a lot of times they've lost their confidence in being able to reengage in areas they would normally engage with.

"For example, they might go to church, they might be part of small groups or craft or whatever, those groups all closed down when we were in lock-down."

'A number of them were not able to reengage in those activities."

She said support networks such as church and social groups often proved pivotal in preventing victims from falling through the cracks.

"Often it provides a cover for them to get help," Ms Fletcher said.

"But the other thing it does is that it has also given them avenue for them to be able to cope with in the past and now being at home has amplified feelings of isolation.

"People will think that elder abuse is physical violence but in my experience it is much more subtle than that."

She urged people to phone the Yacaaba Centre if they were in need of counselling services or support.

"They can access our services in a confidential manner - sometimes that's a big concern for people."

Ms Fletcher's concerns of increased instances of elder abuse during the pandemic were echoed by Medowie solicitor Brooke Vitnell who said it wasn't just victims reaching out.

"We have noticed an increase in inquiries and elderly members of the community reaching out for assistance," Ms Vitnell said.

"There has also been an increase in family members raising their concerns that other members of the family may be altering legal documents drafted elsewhere, or even fraudulently drafted.

"In Port Stephens the proportion of our population over 65 is 22.6 per cent, we have a significant elderly population here.

"Many seniors in our community, due to COVID-19, may not have access to transport or are choosing to remain at home as they are at increased risk of the pandemic.

"Increasing isolation may lead to the circumstances in which the only visits an older person receives could be from their perpetrator, or perpetrators, of the abuse."

Senior constable Krystle Wilcox is the Aged Crime Prevention Officer for Port Stephens - Hunter Police District.

Senior constable Krystle Wilcox is the Aged Crime Prevention Officer for Port Stephens - Hunter Police District.

She said that solicitors were able to discuss the matter with an individual and assist in filing a report on their behalf with the Ageing & Disability Commissioner.

Elder Abuse Action Australia (EAAA) is a national advocate for eliminating elder abuse.

The advocacy group turned to a prominent Aboriginal Elder to understand the prevalence of abuse within Aboriginal communities across Australia, including Port Stephens.

Dr Elizabeth McEntyre, a Worimi and Wonnarua woman, and Doctor of Social Work said elder abuse within Aboriginal communities was a complex situation, with an unclear understanding of the prevalence and depth of the issue.

"Aboriginal Elders can be subjected to abuse, mostly of an emotional and financial nature. 'Humbugging', as it's called, is common. It's that constant asking for money, whether it's to help buy food or to spend elsewhere," Dr McEntyre said.

"Many Elders don't always want to hand over their money, but because they may have grown up in poverty, and with very little money, they don't want to see their family members experience the same, so they unknowingly feed the beast," she said.

Compass.info, a national website created by Elder Abuse Action Australia, aims to 'create a national focus on elder abuse by raising awareness, and simplify the process of connecting people to services and information tackling elder abuse'.

The site has resources specific to elder abuse of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

A list of support services available in Port Stephens will be published on the Examiner's website and in next week's installment of the series.

If you are in immediate danger contact Triple 0 (000). For more information phone the NSW Ageing & Disability Commission helpline on 1800 628 221.