Law and health working together to look after the rights of older Queenslanders

The first year of partnership between Caxton Legal Centre and Metro South Health has opened the doors to help for elder abuse in both hospital and community health settings. 

The health justice partnership, known as the Older Persons Advocacy and Legal Service (OPALS), began operating from the Princess Alexandra Hospital in August 2019.  

OPALS focus is on the rights of older persons to exercise autonomous decision-making and live free from abuse and neglect. It uses an integrated social worker-lawyer model to promote legal, health and social outcomes for its clients. 

In 2020, OPALS is rolling out across Metro South Health, having already commenced operations at Logan Hospital in October 2020 and currently building relationships with QEII and Redlands hospitals and health services. 

OPALS senior lawyer, Tile Imo, says the need for the service is evident in all health services the program operates within. 

Whether its a hospital or a neighbourhood GP, elder abuse is such a widespread phenomenon that health professionals at all levels are witnessing it in their work.

OPALS has recently employed a second lawyer to enable our program to expand, a key step towards ensuring that any older person seeking help receives it. 

Dr Anne-Louise McCawley, Statewide Clinical Education Program Manager – Social Work and Welfare and the Metro South Health OPALS Coordinator, said that for older people legal needs frequently arise or come to public attention when they experience health events.  

The OPALS service provides help to people who may not even know that they have any socio-legal options.  They may not know that what they are experiencing is elder abuse but often just want it to stop.    

Elder abuse covers many aspects of a persons life including neglect, social/emotional, psychological, financial, physical, or sexual abuse and unfortunately it happens mostly within families, said Dr McCawley. 

People who are dependent on others for physical or emotional support often may be more vulnerable to abuse if they believe that there are no care alternatives, or that they may not see their loved one again if they speak up.   

Financial abuse is the most prevalent form of elder abuse but it often happens alongside other abuse such as emotional abuse.  Issues around Enduring Powers of Attorney, financial abuse and capacity for decision-making often come to light when the older person is sick and unfortunately, some older people are taken advantage of in these circumstances. 

Thats why it is so important to have specialist elder abuse lawyers and social workers on hand to speak to older people about their rights.  

Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine, CEO of Health Justice Australia, agrees.   

There is strong evidence that people are more likely to approach professionals other than lawyers when they have a legal problem. Legal problems can also contribute to or exacerbate ill health.  

OPALS brings legal help into the heart of the hospitals that older people who may be vulnerable to elder abuse are likely to access. It is part of a growing network of health justice partnerships across Australia that are embedding legal help into healthcare teams and settings, helping people access the support they need at the time and in the place that works best for them. 

OPALS services include comprehensive socio-legal assessment, representation in court, mediation and negotiations with other parties, advocacy for enhanced community support and referrals.    

In a society impacted by ageist approaches towards how decisions ought to be made about older persons health, accommodation, care and safety, the service repositions the older person as the rights holder who has options and who can be supported to have their wishes and preferences upheld.  

In just over a year, OPALS has delivered legal education to more than 1000 health professionals and provided over 200 legal and social work services to older persons. 

OPALS also provided 99 secondary consultations to health staff during its first year, mainly with hospital social workers.  Secondary consultations are a way for the lawyer to provide legal information to health staff when they have legal questions, which are provided in a hypothetical and/or deidentified way to support patients. 

The Older Persons Advocacy and Legal Service is funded by the Commonwealth Government, Attorney-Generals Department.    

The OPALS lawyers can be reached on 0408 376 117 or 0436 125 030 or through Caxton Legal Centre on (07) 3214 6333.