Ageism and the effects of COVID-19 on older Australians

Message from our Age Discrimination Commissioner

Image: Anita Jankovic - Unsplash

As Age Discrimination Commissioner, I am always concerned when I witness ageism in Australian society. During various stages of the pandemic, particularly at the beginning, we have seen ever-present ageist ideas playing out in a number of ways. Some of the discussion around age-based data and the impact of the virus on certain age cohorts has been underpinned by ageist stereotypes that devalue not only the significant contributions of older people to our community, but also devalues their lives.

My message during this time continues to be the importance of acknowledging that all lives, irrespective of age, are of equal value. It is vital that we, wherever possible, balance peoples’ susceptibility to this virus with their ongoing rights to autonomy. This is critical to ensuring that ageist stereotypes do not influence public discussion and policy implementation which may result in the unintended consequence of either direct or indirect age discrimination.

As the pandemic situation changes rapidly and we continue to adapt, I am paying particular attention to the profound effect COVID-19 is having on my three focus areas as Age Discrimination Commissioner: elder abuse in the community, older women’s risk of homelessness and age discrimination and the workplace.

In normal times, elder abuse affects thousands of Australians each year. It is any act that causes harm to an older person – the abuse may be financial, physical, psychological, sexual or neglect.

Elder abuse is an extreme expression of ageism, resulting in harm. An example of the relationship between ageism and elder abuse is where attitudes tip the scale towards protection rather than respecting an older person’s autonomy; benevolent ageism is an extension of ageist views about the independence and agency of older people.

In the current context of COVID-19, when various vital physical distancing requirements are in place to mitigate against the spread of the virus, I have been sharing the message that physical distancing does not need to mean social distancing. Social isolation is a well-documented risk factor for elder abuse, so it’s up to all of us to stay connected with the older people in our lives. A phone or video call, writing a letter, or checking in on a neighbour can make a world of difference.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) is commemorated on 15 June each year, including by advocacy groups in Australia whose role it is to educate, advocate and support older Australians at risk of or experiencing elder abuse. During my term, I’ve endeavoured to be in a different state each WEAAD which was unfortunately not possible this year.

Instead, I participated in online forums with groups working in elder abuse across Australia to get the WEAAD message out – including informing older Australians that help is available. There is a national free and confidential helpline: 1800 ELDERHelp (1800 353 374), which directs callers to their state or territory number, if you or someone you know needs help.

At the time of WEAAD, data coming through from calls to the elder abuse helplines across Australia painted a mixed picture. While some states reported an increase in calls since the pandemic started, others are concerned that older people who may be spending more time at home with the perpetrator are not able to make private phone calls. During this time, older people have also not been seeing the people outside their immediate circle they would normally see, such as their pharmacist or allied health professionals, who are often first responders in identifying red flags of elder abuse.

I have been concerned to hear of cases where physical distancing requirements over recent months have been used to limit an older person’s social interactions or activities under the guise of protecting the older person’s health.

There have even been examples in Victoria of adult children using COVID-19 as a reason for older people to move into their child’s home, ostensibly to look after them during the pandemic. Only for the older person to find that they are being shut away by their family, forced to eat, sleep and live in the one room—one case involved an older person being moved into their child’s backyard shed.

Social isolation also increases the risk of financial elder abuse. In one case, a son used physical distancing requirements as the reason to undertake his mother’s banking for her. As a result, he withdrew the entire $750 coronavirus Economic Support Payment for himself.

COVID-19 has also affected housing security across age groups, including older women who were, even before the pandemic, renting, in insecure employment, with minimal, if any superannuation, and who were just one setback, such as an illness, job loss, eviction or relationship breakdown away from at risk of being homeless.

While the image of homelessness in Australia often focuses on people who are rough sleeping, there is a hidden cohort of older women, including those working in healthcare and allied health professions, who have led conventional lives, yet find themselves at risk of homelessness as they approach or enter retirement. I am focused on advocating that all levels of government, business and the not-for-profit sectors work together to find innovative, flexible solutions to this complex problem, as a priority area within the broader response to the pressures on homelessness and housing affordability being exacerbated by COVID-19. In 2019, I launched my paper, Older Women’s Risk of Homelessness: Background Paper

The pandemic has also placed additional pressure on my third priority area, age discrimination and the workplace. As unemployment data reflecting the impacts emerges, it is evident that the effects are being felt to a greater degree by the youngest and oldest members of the workforce. My team and I are keeping a close eye on this data to inform my work in this area. I have been creating strategies with the Collaborative Partnership for Mature Age Employment (which I chair) to assist older workers through the pandemic and into the recovery phase.

Within a human rights context, it is important to acknowledge that COVID-19 is a test of governments, communities and individuals. As our society grapples with, and then moves to recover from, the pandemic, I will continue to advocate that neither direct nor indirect age discrimination is an unintended consequence of our response to the plethora of issues we face.

[Source: The Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO, ]