Research into Australian aged-care facilities shows 39.2 per cent of residents have experienced some form of abuse.
The data released by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was calculated using responses to a survey of 391 aged-care residents in 67 homes.
Joe Ibrahim, head of the health, law and ageing research unit at Monash University, said the findings did not surprise him.
“There’s a great deal of neglect and abuse that has been underreported,” he said.
“The rates of abuse and neglect are so much higher than even the most cynical of us consider possible.”
The survey was not conducted for the purpose of measuring the level of elder abuse in care facilities, but it estimated the prevalence of abuse by examining elderly residents’ responses to questions.
Residents answered questionnaires about their quality of life, the level of care and their concerns or complaints about the facility where they lived.
The survey did not look into social, financial and sexual abuse.
‘Neglect is a huge factor in aged-care homes’
From the responses received, the researchers reported 30.8 per cent of respondents experienced neglect.
This included concerns about how they were helped to shower, toilet, eat and use continence aids, as well as how medication was managed, how wounds were looked after and how pain was addressed.
Vivian Poloni, who discovered her father was being roughly treated in the dementia ward at Bupa Templestowe, said she witnessed ongoing neglect at the facility during her weekly visits.
Ms Poloni and family members noticed Ernie Poloni’s teeth were not being brushed and he was not being given a shower.
“Neglect is a huge factor in aged-care homes,” said Ms Poloni, who first revealed concerns about how her father was treated in September 2019.
“They don’t have the staff or they won’t put on the staff.”
Professor Ibrahim said it was appalling to discover nearly a third of residents were being neglected and said more research was needed to work out why it was happening and how it could be stopped.
“There’s very little funding or support to investigate or interrogate this type of information,” he said.
“I think the regulator, the government and the general population do not like or find it challenging to confront the reality of abuse and neglect.”
One in 20 reported physical abuse
The report also showed an estimated 22.6 per cent of residents experienced emotional or psychological abuse, including feeling like they were being treated like children, being shouted at, or not having their concerns listened to.
One in every 20 residents reported having been physically abused, which included people being roughly treated by staff, restrained, or not being allowed out of their bed, chair or room.
More than 200,000 Australians currently live in aged-care facilities, which means more than 10,000 elderly people could be subject to physical abuse.
Ms Poloni suspected her father was being roughly handled after the family noticed his pyjamas were being ripped.
They installed a hidden camera in his room and discovered staff at the care home were pushing Mr Poloni around when they changed him.
“The staff weren’t carers in the real sense and they weren’t properly trained or behaved,” she said.
Ms Poloni and other family members felt they had to constantly check how her father was being cared for.
One lady in the facility, whose family rarely visited, “lost so much weight she just deteriorated because no one was making sure she was fed”, Ms Poloni said.
Bupa has apologised “unreservedly” for failures across its network of aged-care facilities.
Professor Ibrahim said the findings pointed to widespread abuse in care homes, given residents from so many homes were surveyed.
In his view, abuse of elderly people is a major problem in every type of facility, no matter who the owners are, and the onus is on regulators and the government to set standards that address the issues.
He is hopeful the report will provide a catalyst for more research into how the abuse of elderly people can be addressed.
But he is concerned few people can see how bad the problem is.
“You can’t believe that people would be so awful in an environment that is supposed to be one that cares for you,” he said.