Simple questions might help determine elder abuse

ELDERLY AT RISK: Lawyers are helping GPs and other health professionals to find out whether an elderly person may be at risk of abuse. Picture: File photo
ELDERLY AT RISK: Lawyers are helping GPs and other health professionals to find out whether an elderly person may be at risk of abuse. Picture: File photo

The legal profession has come up with a new way to help GPs detect elder abuse among their patients.

Sydney University of Technology Law Faculty Associate Professor Nola Ries has been working on a simple questionnaire for doctors to use when they see older patients.

Ms Ries said the questions were basically an elder abuse suspicion index. For example, the first question asked if the person relied on others to do their shopping or banking, for preparing meals or for personal care such as bathing.

“The more dependent they are on others, the more vulnerable they are to being abused.

“Another common question is whether anyone has tried to force them to sign papers or use their money against their will.”

A third question was whether anyone had frightened or hurt them physically, or spoken to them in a threatening way.

Ms Ries said many older people might have felt uncomfortable with some behaviour, but would not recognise it as abuse.

“The questions are meant to be used fairly quickly. If the person answers ‘yes’, it’s an indication that there could be abuse. If they answer ‘no’ the (doctor) can assume that person is doing well.”

Ms Ries said GPs could score the answers easily and if the results suggested the possibility of abuse, that was just the start of a process.

The questions had been tested with many people, so they would give reliable results.

“Just asking the question doesn’t necessarily mean the patient will be willing to talk about it,” she said.

“But using these tools may help (GPs) guide a conversation to reduce the stigma about reporting abuse, and raise awareness of abuse.”

Ms Ries said there were growing calls for elder abuse screening from community-based services, including GPs.

“The abuse of older people in Australian communities is a serious and under-detected problem.

“In its various forms – emotional, financial, physical, sexual, neglect – abuse has profound individual and social impacts.

“It can deprive older people of their assets and increase their risk of injury, hospital admission, residential care placement and premature mortality,” she said.