On Sunday, Australia announced that it would hold a royal commission – its supreme form of inquiry – into the nation’s scandal-hit aged care sector. Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned Australians to brace for “bruising” evidence of abuse and negligence.
A hidden camera captures the chilling moment when an Australian care worker appears to try to suffocate an 89-year-old man with dementia. The image, first publicised in local news in 2016, highlighted the terror, domination and deceit of elder abuse in a country with an ageing population.
The mistreatment of Clarence Hausler in a nursing home in Adelaide in 2015 was uncovered by his daughter, who had been suspicious about her father’s bruises.
Video from a spy camera she secretly installed revealed that a care assistant, Corey Lyle Lucas, had apparently attempted to violently force-feed his bedridden patient who could not talk or walk, and pinned him down when he resisted. Lucas was convicted of aggravated assault. The care home apologised and said his actions were a “rogue act”.
In recent years especially, Australia has been confronted with the exploitation of its youngest and oldest citizens. The nation is still digesting the recommendations of a royal commission that spent almost five years investigating the depraved treatment of children in institutions.
Now residential and in-home aged care will be scrutinised. In justifying the need for a royal commission, Mr Morrison said “our loved ones – some of them – have experienced some real mistreatment”.
“And I think that’s going to be tough for us all to deal with,” he added. “But you can’t walk past it.”
The inquiry’s budget and start date are still to be decided
Community leaders say the true scale of elder abuse is unknown but anecdotal evidence has suggested it is a dark and deep-rooted problem.
“It is a scandal beyond belief,” says Reverend Bill Crews from Australia’s Uniting Church.
“How we can behave to one another – when we are not watched by others – is beyond belief. It started with young people. It is now with old people. We are a society where love is vanishing and the inevitable outcome of that is a lot of pain.”
An Elder Abuse Helpline was set up in New South Wales (NSW) in 2013, and state lawmakers have conducted their own investigation into the mistreatment of senior citizens.
“It is often psychological and emotional abuse but it can also be physical, financial and even sexual, which is extremely disturbing,” Tanya Davies, NSW minister for ageing, women and mental health told the BBC.
“As a nation we don’t yet have a comprehensive idea as to the length and breadth of this.”
Victims have also shared their stories with another inquiry in Western Australia.
A frail elderly woman, identified only as Sylvia, was forced to move into a nursing home after her son took her money to buy himself a house. According to a legal submission, Sylvia was scared that if she didn’t do as he asked, her son would assault her.
The inquiry was told that her son had threatened to burn down her home if she “called the cops” on him. To make his point, the son allegedly set fire to his bag in her living room. Sylvia was too afraid to take legal action and she died nine months after going into residential care.
Quality of care in nursing homes will form part of the inquiry
Ian Henchske, chief advocate for independent lobby group National Seniors Australia, says a lot of elder abuse “takes place within the family”.
He told the BBC that less than 20% of elder abuse is reported to an authority, and that greed was mostly to blame.
“The predominant form of abuse that is being reported is financial abuse,” he says. “You have got a generation below the older generation looking at their parents and wondering when are they going to get out of that home because that is an important part of my inheritance.”
Campaigners say that rapacious relatives suffer from “inheritance impatience” and that disrespect and abuse is underpinned by ageism.
“These sorts of things are similar to the attitudes and the discrimination that occurs around race and sexism,” says Jenny Blakey, the manager at Seniors Rights Victoria.
“We ignore the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that older people have at our peril. We need to harness the skill and recognise the value of older people and what they bring to our society.”
Many victims can’t or won’t fight back. But some do.
In Perth, Mrs M, a frail but spirited woman in her late 80s, had been ripped off by her son, who had drained several thousand dollars from her account.
She went to her bank to complain that she had not been told about payments made by her son on her credit card. In a loud voice, she berated staff for their incompetence – before being fully reimbursed.
Tackling ageism, abuse and indifference won’t be easy, but Mr Crews believes that respecting the elderly is a good place to start.
“I was talking to an older man a week or so ago who was 97 and we sat in the back there and just talked, and the love just poured out of him,” he says.
“It was like sitting in the sunlight. All he needed was someone to love.”