Select Committee into Elder Abuse — Final Report —
“‘I never thought it would happen to me’: When trust is broken” — Motion
Resumed from 17 October on the following motion moved by Hon Nick Goiran — That the report be noted.
[Comments from Hon NICK GOIRAN: ………….]
Hon ALISON XAMON: I rise because I wish to make some comments about this very important committee report. I very much look forward to receiving the government’s response to our report; it has been a while. I remind members that we anticipate receiving the government’s response shortly, on 13 November 2018. I certainly hope that the government response will be favourable, because a lot of considered thought went into the creation of this report. This area is desperately in need of some urgent attention, and hopefully it will prove to be a priority activity for this government.
But I rise today to speak about a particular element of the report that I think is worthwhile bringing to members’ attention. I have spoken in previous weeks about the various population groups at particular risk of either being on the receiving end of elder abuse or of perpetrating elder abuse. I wish to talk about the latter group today. I draw members’ attention to the portion of the report that outlines the very real concern around carer stress and the resulting risk of increased rates of elder abuse. From the outset, I say that I have great admiration for people who take on carer roles within the community. We are talking about people who go over and above the ordinary caring roles we would expect as parents towards our children; we are talking about people who end up looking after particularly grandparents or parents. I acknowledge that many, many carers within our community are doing an extraordinary job not only out of a sense of obligation, but also obviously out of deep-seated love for the person they are looking after.
I also recognise that in many instances it can be extraordinarily difficult work as well. One of the things that the committee heard a fair bit of evidence on was the level of stress that carers are increasingly feeling in the community. Very often the carer will be a long-term spouse, who themselves will be older and perhaps in need of support. It can be extraordinarily taxing for people, and indeed exhausting, to have to take on additional carer responsibilities. We already know that we can and need to be doing much more as a community to support people taking on carer roles. Carers WA, which is of course the peak body for carer services within Western Australia, talks often about the need to provide additional support for carers and the burden they carry. Carers can take on physical burdens, with a lack of respite. One of the things we also heard evidence on was the number of carers dealing with elderly people who themselves end up being the recipient of sometimes abusive conduct. It can certainly be the case that as older people start to develop various types of cognitive impairment or dementia, their behaviours may change, so that in addition to requiring additional physical assistance the nature of the relationship can change dramatically. That can culminate in creating a series of risk factors that can lead to a very real risk of elder abuse.
We know that carer stress or burnout is a very real phenomenon. When people are emotionally and physically exhausted, they are less likely to be able to provide the level of care that people hope is provided to someone who is vulnerable and in need. Carers WA advised the committee that a lot of the time people do not set out to identify as carers; they can just be people who identify as a loved one, whether a wife, child or grandchild, but that the complexity around the nature of the relationship means that this lack of skills or support can lead to abusive or neglectful relationships. That is a real risk factor that people need to be mindful of. If someone is, effectively, having to take responsibility for another adult, we need to ensure that we provide the necessary level of services to ensure that people do not burn themselves out. It was quite interesting to look at the issue of carer stress and the type of elder abuse at risk of occurring. Although we saw that the predominant form of elder abuse that occurs across the community is financial and emotional, we found that a slightly higher rate of physical abuse can result from carer stress. I think that is indicative of a profound level of frustration and burnout that can occur as a result of carer stress.
We also heard about the so-called sandwich generation—those people who are often working and find themselves caught between not only still taking care of dependent children, but also having to take primary responsibility for looking after parents. The additional burden of caring for two generations at once can lead to those women committing elder abuse that is not necessarily intentional but can be a direct result of carer stress. The evidence showed that someone is more likely to be at risk of perpetrating elder abuse if have their own personal stresses, and the stress of having to look after another adult can tip the balance. There is often a distinct lack of knowledge of legal responsibilities, such as the scope of what a power of attorney or guardianship permits them to do. That is unsurprising, considering that people, effectively, stumble into these caring relationships; people do not necessarily make a proactive decision to take on that responsibility. There is also a higher concern about the rate of becoming a perpetrator in people with mental illness. As I have mentioned previously, the perpetrator themselves can have a history of abuse against them. One of the scenarios that was spelt out to the committee was, for example, women caring for a husband when the women themselves may have been subject to a history of domestic abuse perpetrated by that person. These are really complex circumstances that we have to acknowledge require complex solutions because we are talking about the interplay of relationships and family histories. It is not very straightforward and I think it is really important to shine a light on the complexities of these relationships because perpetrators of elder abuse can themselves have been a victim. Maybe as a child they were sexually or physically abused by the person they are now perpetrating abuse against or, as I mentioned, they are a spouse who has been subject to abuse. It goes to the complexity of how we tackle these issues.
We know also that sometimes people choose to be malevolent, although the evidence indicated that this is rare. I think we need to recognise that carer stress or carer fatigue is a specific issue when it comes to the risk of elder abuse. It is something we need to be mindful of when we are looking at how we can best tackle the issue of elder abuse within our community. We must be mindful that the presence of carer stress can possibly be an early indicator of risk of abuse. We must also recognise that it can arise because the carer has not been given an opportunity to develop the necessary skills or access support services so they can provide effective care. We are very reliant on carers to effectively fill the gap of service delivery that government can possibly provide. One of the things we can do and should be doing is at least empowering people to gain the full suite of knowledge they require to best effect that job. We need also to recognise that carer stress can arise due to factors directly related to that older person being cared for, including the person’s behaviour and their mental or physical health or other circumstances. It is particularly heartbreaking when carers are looking after a loved one who themselves end up being the recipient of abuse and they are trapped in a terrible cycle of two people who desperately need each other but are absolutely exhausted.
The recommendation the committee came up with—I am looking forward to the government’s response to this— is that the government facilitate more support services and information for carers of older people in Western Australia. It is an area that I think we need to pay more attention to. We need to be mindful of the complexity of human relationships in this space. But, clearly, it is something we need to find solutions to. I thought I would draw that particular complexity to members’ attention. As I say, it is a complex space.
Resolved, on motion by Hon Nick Goiran, that consideration of the report be postponed to the next sitting of the Council.
Progress reported and leave granted to sit again, pursuant to standing orders.