New health justice partnership between Caxton and Metro South Health takes on elder abuse

Older Australians entering the hospital system are benefiting from Older Persons Advocacy and Legal Service (OPALS), a special collaboration between Metro South Health and Caxton Legal Centre Inc.

Bringing together lawyers, social workers and health professionals, OPALS takes a proactive approach to early intervention for older patients who are at risk of or experiencing elder abuse.

Dr Anne-Louise McCawley, Statewide Clinical Education Program Manager – Social Work and Welfare with Metro South Health, said the service’s multidisciplinary design strengthened its ability to curb elder abuse in Queensland.

“The model we use is a social work-lawyer model. We not only look at the social, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of the patient, but also consider their legal options,” Dr McCawley said.

“Health professionals are being trained to identify older patients who are affected by elder abuse and to refer them to hospital social workers who are being trained to provide specialist supports to these patients.

“A lawyer who specialises in elder law is also working at the hospital, and a community social worker is available for patients post-discharge.”

In Australia, nearly 30 percent of people initially seek advice in situations of elder abuse from trusted health or welfare professionals, putting health professionals in a unique position to identify and make appropriate referrals of patients to specialist support services.

“Sadly it’s often the case that physical, emotional, sexual, psychological and financial abuse is inflicted on older Australians by members of their own family, so we encourage hospital staff to reach out to us if they see anything that would lead them to have concerns about the wellbeing and safety of elderly patients,” Dr McCawley said.

“While OPALS is a partnership in itself, we are also collaborating with the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit, Queensland Police Service and Queensland Ambulance Service in an information sharing, advocacy and training capacity to stop elder abuse in its tracks.”

Cybele Koning, CEO Caxton Legal Centre Inc., said the partnership between Caxton Legal Centre and Metro South Health is providing a blueprint strategy to safeguard the health, social and legal needs of older people.

“OPALS provides a complete service that aims to end abuse immediately and in the long term. In the last 12 months we have been able to represent patients at QCAT and the Domestic and Family Violence Court to put orders in place to prevent further harm.”

“Follow up legal and social work services can be provided in the community for up to three years to make sure the older person is safe and free from abuse,” Ms Koning said.  

Ms Koning said OPALS had plans to expand over the next two years.

“We are funded by the Commonwealth Government Attorney-General’s Department under a three-year contract and the service is currently being piloted at the Princess Alexandra Hospital and in related health services in Metro South Health,” Ms Koning said. “The intention to introduce it to other locations in the near future.”

To recognise World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on 15 June 2020 Caxton Legal Centre has also released a series of discussion papers based on conversations at the National Elder Abuse Conference 2019. Caxton’s hope is that the rich thinking captured in these discussion papers serves to foster effective responses to elder abuse. The discussion papers are available here.

Caxton Legal Centre Senior Social Worker Helen Wallace is also co-presenting the webinar Healing our communities by ending elder abuse, hosted by Community Legal Centres Australia and Community Legal Centres Queensland. Register for the webinar here.

Elder abuse is a growing problem in Australia with an estimated 2-14 percent of older Australians affected. In 2018, 15.7% of Australians (3.9 million) were aged 65 and over, and 11.6% (2.9 million) were aged 55-64, proportions that are projected to grow steadily over the coming decades.

Caxton Legal Centre’s Seniors Legal and Support Service and Older Persons Advocacy and Legal Service, provides free legal and social work support for older persons experiencing elder abuse, mistreatment, neglect or financial exploitation. Contact the service on (07) 3214 6333.