Leading the nation in human rights
WRITER: Carole Lydon
PHOTOGRAPHER: Randy Larcombe
What if you woke up one day and had your driver’s licence taken away? Or you stood at the ATM, but couldn’t remember your PIN? What if you realised that your adult child who moved in to take care of you was almost keeping you captive?
Looming in the background of our busy daily lives is the fact that, for some people, the autumn years become a kind of living hell. In our community, thousands of older Australians are being abused financially, psychologically, emotionally and physically—and we don’t even realise.
In 2011, the South Australian Aged Rights Advocacy Service registered 524 older persons seeking assistance for abuse. In 294 cases, the abuse was instigated by an adult child, with 20% of these abusers living in the same home. Over half the cases involved financial abuse and, alarmingly, 74% of cases involved psychological abuse.
As the population continues to age, this situation will worsen if it is not addressed now. Particularly so in South Australia where it is estimated that almost 24% of the population will be 65 and over by 2036 and the number of people over 85 will double to an estimated 99,000.
While it’s second nature to prepare for superannuation, business succession and retirement, what we don’t think about is the possibility that we could become dependent on others to care for some aspects of our lives, as we become older.
Vulnerability is complex. A person can become vulnerable in just one area of their life. They might have the capacity to manage living at home doing all of the routine daily chores they have done for years, but their finances become confusing. Vulnerability is not precise. It is about that time in a person’s life, when they must place trust in someone else to help them. Sadly, case studies show that this trust can be so easily misplaced, and with heartbreaking consequences.
What happens when something goes wrong? In South Australia at the moment, abusive situations are addressed by a heavy-handed guardianship approach or attendance by the police. You can imagine the reluctance of a mother, for example, to call in the police on her son or daughter, especially when she might risk losing the only family relationship she has.
In 2010, South Australia’s Office for the Public Advocate (OPA) was successful in obtaining funding for research around elder abuse and vulnerable adults in the community—the Vulnerable Adults Project. A team of researchers from the UniSA Human Rights and Security Research and Innovation Cluster, led by Dr Wendy Lacey, UniSA School of Law, bid successfully to work with the OPA. Their aim was to prepare a report on strategies for the prevention of and intervention in cases of elder abuse, without simultaneously eroding the rights of older persons.
What followed was a consultative project producing ‘Closing the Gaps’—a groundbreaking and unique approach to policy and legislation.
“The report proposes an innovative approach to utilising international human rights at the policy level,” explains Lacey. “It involves whole of government policy and strategy for considering legislation that protects the inherent human rights and dignity of older persons. It adopts a framework for safeguarding persons vulnerable to abuse by mandating a coordinated response from agencies.”
She argues that the approach is unique. “There is no United Nations Convention on Rights for Older Persons, so we have taken existing Covenants to which Australia is bound, together with the United Nations Principles for Older Persons, and adapted them to create a South Australian Charter.”
Dr John Brayley, South Australia’s Public Advocate, adds, “This work demonstrates that a rights-based approach can deliver practical help to older people. The emphasis is on ensuring that older ‘at risk’ people get assistance that is both coordinated and effective. We were delighted to work with the UniSA team. Linking human rights with the service system design helped the project deliver innovative proposals that will assist our state to move away from a traditional welfare model.”
Through this project, the OPA and UniSA have had the opportunity to contribute to policy-making at the local level, and to develop a pragmatic approach that has international significance. In August this year, Lacey spoke at the World Demographic and Ageing Forum in Switzerland on how governments can protect the rights of older persons without a UN Convention. ‘Closing the Gaps’ has since been referred to the Strategic Priorities Group of the South Australian Cabinet.
As a member of the Alliance for Prevention of Elder Abuse, the OPA will continue to advocate for an Adult Protection Act. For now, the report offers South Australia a practical opportunity to lead the nation in human rights protection.
1.A woman in her late 70s had a stroke and knew she would need support at home when discharged from hospital. Her 48-year-old son, who was unemployed and had been evicted from his flat, offered to be her carer. He signed up for the Carer’s Pension and moved in. As her needs increased, her son denied access to care and socially isolated her in an attempt to maintain his pension payments.
2.A woman, 83, was persuaded by her daughter and son-in-law to sell the family home and use the funds to build a granny flat at the back of their property; they would care for her and she would be closer to the grandchildren. They also borrowed money from the proceeds of sale, promising to pay it back with interest. When relations deteriorated after moving in, the grandchildren were kept from her, her daughter refused to allow any of her friends to visit, and her son-in-law threatened to put her in a nursing home if she complained. No loan repayments were ever made.
3.A 78-year-old man was admitted to hospital for an acute illness. He signed a Power of Attorney to his daughter to manage his affairs while he was temporarily incapacitated. The daughter sold her father’s house forcing him into a nursing home.
4.A couple in their early 80s, allowed their son to move into the family home after he had lost his job and his relationship had broken down. The son had a gambling and alcohol addiction. He didn’t pay any board or help around the home and, over time, grew physically and verbally abusive towards them. His father asked him to move out but the son pushed him and punched a hole in the wall. With the police standing by, his mother felt ‘torn’, knowing that her son would have nowhere to go if they removed him from their home. She couldn’t bring herself to ‘toss him out on the street’.
Wendy Lacey is an Associate Professor with the School of Law located in the UniSA Business School. She is an expert in Australian public law and human rights.
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