15 June 2020

Older persons are people too: ageism and elder abuse

At what point do we look at a person and see them as ‘old’? As an object of pity, an object of endings and not beginnings? Of illness and incapacity? Of our inevitable mortality? In short, as an object – no longer part of ‘us’. At what point do we no longer recognise and respect their human dignity? At what point do we then feel we have the right to take away their autonomy, make assumptions about their capacity and ignore their wishes?

You may think that you would never treat a person this way and yet it is estimated that between 2% to 10% of older Australians experience elder abuse in any given year.[i] The prevalence of neglect is possibly higher. Something is making people think they can treat older people in their lives like this; and it is time to call it out for what it is – ageism.

History tells us that when we stop seeing the humanity in others, we are likely to commit the most serious violations of their human rights. The source of human rights is human dignity – something difficult to define but clearly understood when it is not respected.

Why else would a person bring an older family member to live with them during the COVID isolation period but put them in the garden shed? Why else would a daughter-in-law drive her deceased husband’s mother to a street corner and leave her there, no longer welcome in the home? Why else would younger members of a family renege on agreements with parents and sell their homes without consultation and without somewhere else for them to live?

We would not accept a person being the subject of similar abuse because of their race or gender or sexuality and we should be equally outraged that it occurs to people because of their age. Yet as Ashton Applewhite has stated ageism is ‘the last socially sanctioned prejudice’.[ii] We seem OK with making assumptions that people are ‘too old’ for something without bothering to find out who they are or what they are capable of. It is a prejudice that would never be tolerated if it was based on a characteristic other than age.

We develop negative stereotypes about old age in early childhood, around the time that attitudes about race and gender begin to form.[iii] Yet while I hope we are teaching our children acceptance of difference in regards to race and gender, are we doing the same for age?

We all aspire to live, yet dread growing old. We make assumptions about what it is like to be old and as Applewhite writes, we ‘grossly underestimate the quality of life that the old enjoy, and often its value as well.’[iv] Our stereotyping obstructs empathy and without that we are unable to see older people as ‘fellow representatives of the human condition in all its diversity’.[v] It leaves older people ripe for abuse.

This World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is the perfect time to reflect on our attitudes towards those who are older than us, to reflect on our fears and prejudices and to commit to better informing ourselves and those around us about ageism and elder abuse. After all, ageism ‘is a prejudice against our own future selves.’[vi] Making changes now will not only benefit the current older generation but ourselves when we (hopefully) are fortunate enough to get there as well.

[i] Australian Institute of Family Studies, Elder Abuse: Understanding issues, frameworks and responses, 2016. At https://aifs.gov.au/publications/elder-abuse (viewed 13 June 2020).

[ii] Ashton Applewhite, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism (2019) XIX.

[iii] Ibid 31.

[iv] Ibid 187.

[v] Ibid 8 and 56.

[vi] Ibid 6.


Nathan Kennedy

Nathan Kennedy

Partner, Head of Pro Bono & Community and ESG Co-Lead

Nathan is the firm's Head of Pro Bono & Community, his practice covers employment, administrative law and human rights.