Older people bearing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – what are we going to do?

senior woman with closed eyes holds her hand to her head

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic older Australians are more socially isolated than ever, so what should we be doing about it? This question and more are on the minds of lawyers and social workers across the various Seniors Legal and Support Services in Queensland, of which our service is one. What our older at-risk Australians are experiencing is unprecedented and raises many questions about what will happen to vulnerable older Australians during the pandemic and how we can best be there for them. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted upon life all over the world, but no cohort in the Australian population has been more affected than older people.  Seniors bear a disproportionate risk of death resulting from coronavirus. In Australia by April 2020 a vast majority of deaths due to the virus have been of older people.  Due to their heightened risk they have also been subject to stricter recommendations around movement than others in the community, with the Federal Government recommending that people over the age of 70 should stay home and self-isolate. In this climate of increased social isolation barriers to accessing legal and social support are now amplified for older persons experiencing elder abuse.

On a daily basis we rely on various health professionals, including our GPs, nurses, social workers and respite centre workers to identify elder abuse red flags and assist in connecting older persons with legal or social support. We are also highly dependent upon red flag ‘noticers’ within our communities, including our hair dressers and bank staff. With older persons now effectively isolated from both formal and informal support systems, who will notice the red flags now?

The Care Army is building up its volunteer base to connect with older persons who need assistance.  However, without specific training on how to recognise elder abuse and how to respond, the opportunity for an additional “noticer” may be lost.

Experience tells us that isolation can be used as a means of violence and control by abusers. A recent case where a man had been subject to long-term domestic violence by his wife was only discovered when a respite centre worker noticed the man’s black eye. His wife had been monitoring his mail and online banking and limiting his social outings. Current circumstances limiting social opportunities, combined with stressors such as job loss and financial worries, increase our concerns for the wellbeing of the people we are here to service.  

Prior to the intrusion of COVID-19 many of our clients were already hesitant to take legal action against financially and emotionally abusive family members, opting instead to tolerate abusive adult children living in their home. It can take years for an older person to reach a point where they are ready to take legal action against a family member. Many people never will. Many simply do not know how to. Reasons for this inaction range from fear of repercussion in the form of violence, to simply wanting to help their child even if it means sacrificing their own wellbeing. Our seniors are at a greater risk than ever right now, so how can we better reach out to offer help to those who are suffering in silence?

Visits to residential aged care facilities have also been restricted and some aged care providers have closed their facilities to visitors altogether. Our service assists many clients who have been deliberately socially isolated from their loved ones by being placed into Aged Care Facilities against their will. During a pandemic a restriction on visitation may be a necessary infringement on human rights for the safety of its residents. But such restrictions also inadvertently foster the social isolation, and in some cases social abuse, of its residents. Restrictions on movement need to be proportionate and take into account human rights implications.How do we find a balance between protection and autonomy for victims of social abuse in Aged Care Facilities while these restrictions are in place?

It is becoming widely accepted that the mental health implications of isolation measures may be severe. We need to remain conscious of the reality that social distancing measures increase older persons’ isolation and loneliness, which in turn increases their barriers to accessing help. Many people are using digital technology to stay connected, however, given the lower rates of use of technology by seniors there must be other approaches in order to ensure that people without access to technology are not left behind. Internationally, measures such as telephone helplines and radio programs are being used to ensure people of all ages have access to information. We can keep our seniors informed in this way but how are they going to communicate with us and who is going to teach them how to use modern technology?

While services assisting people experiencing domestic violence have at this time received additional funding, this has not been the case for services such as ours, the Seniors Legal and Support Service, which provides legal and social work support for people experiencing or at risk of experiencing elder abuse. We need to remember that a person’s basic human right to equal treatment does not diminish with age. We must consider innovative ways to raise awareness about social isolation and elder abuse during this critical time. We must create answers to these questions. What are we going to do for our seniors most at risk?