When we put a loved one into aged care, we trust that those charged with their care will fulfill their responsibility to look after the person, and at the very least will keep them safe.
But tragically, this is often not happening.
In recent times, in the wake of Oakden, media reports, particularly those from the ABC, and hearings from the royal commission have revealed many horror stories of neglect, abuse and assault in aged care.
The ABC has led the reporting on failures in our aged care system, and this week has reported on a topic that reporter Anne Connolly says many would prefer not to talk about: sexual abuse in aged care.
Society not comfortable talking about sexual assault of older people
There’s a perception in society that older people are no longer desirable, and therefore it’s unimaginable that they will be sexually assaulted.
But the data shows this isn’t the case. Sexual assault is on the rise in nursing homes.
The most recent data from the Department of Health, shows there were 547 ‘reportable incidents’ during in the 2017-2018 year, a 40 per cent increase from the 390 reports the previous year.
A reportable incident is defined as any unlawful sexual conduct, which means any sexual contact that has taken place without consent.
The Minister for Aged Care, Ken Wyatt, told HelloCare, “Assaults of any kind are totally unacceptable.”
He said greater awareness of the issue could have been factor in the increase in reported assaults.
“Reporting of sexual assaults can increase because of increased awareness of the issue, and it appears that this may be a cause of the increased the number of compulsory reports,” he said.
Sexual assaults likely underreported
The sharp increase in last year’s numbers may not even reveal the full extent of the issue, as the numbers are likely to be underreported.
One factor potentially minimising the numbers is that sexual assault is still often not reported in Australia.
Another factor is that incidents perpetrated by a resident who is cognitively impaired do not have to be reported; a gap in the reporting that is difficult to comprehend.
Mr Wyatt told HelloCare the government is introducing a Serious Incident Response Scheme from 1 July 2022 which may include a broader range of reportable incidents.
The scheme may include as reportable incidents: physical, sexual or financial abuse; seriously inappropriate, improper, inhumane or cruel treatment or neglect by a staff member; and physical abuse causing serious injury, sexual abuse, or an incident that is a part of a pattern of abuse by another care recipient, even if the perpetrator is has a cognitive impairment.
The government will conduct a study into the prevalence of aggression between residents in aged care as part of the development of the scheme, Mr Wyatt said.
Industry needs education, guidance for “complex” issue
Yesterday, Dr Catherine Barrett, director of Celebrate Ageing and an advocate for older women who have been sexually assaulted, told HelloCare the aged care industry needs better guidelines for dealing with older people’s sexuality, including unlawful sexual contact.
She said too often family and even the victims themselves are left to be the ones advocating for change.
Dr Barrett said that the government collects data on sexual assault in aged care, but does little with it other than report it.
She said she would like to see the data on alleged unlawful sexual contact analysed, trends identified, best practice developed, and then guidelines developed for the industry.
Aged care providers often have little-to-no education about older people’s sexuality, yet they often have to manage “really complex” issues, Dr Barrett said.
Possible developments that could help the aged care industry better cope with sexual assault include guidance for operators on how to deal with sexual misconduct, ways to support victims, better screening of staff, especially personal care workers, and a register of offenders.
Mr Wyatt said the Aged Care Workforce Strategy recommended the centralisation of registration for all care staff, including personal care workers, and there is a scoping study underway into such a register.
But until adequate systems and guidelines in place, operators largely remain in the dark, and that needs to change before our loved ones in aged care can be truly safe.
Anyone who is aware that a sexual assault has taken place in an aged care facility should make sure the aged care provider is aware of it, and also inform the police. If they still have concerns they should alert the Aged Quality and Safety Commission, a process that can be done anonymously.