One of the most shocking disclosures from the royal commission was the revelation that there are around 50 sexual assaults in aged care every week. Equally appalling is a statistic from KPMG research revealing that 58% of aged care workers believe sexual assault has “no impact” on aged care resident victims.
Aged Discrimination Commissioner The Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO told a webinar hosted by the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN) titled ‘Preventing sexual assault of people with dementia in residential aged care’ that, “The first step in addressing this hidden problem … is to start listening to all the people who are at risk.
“Too often the testimony of the victim-survivors is dismissed as unreliable.”
We need to “start listening” to the victims, she told the webinar.
Jane Caro, who hosted the webinar, said some people assume older women will not be the target of sexual assault because there’s an assumption “you’re not sexually attractive anymore”.
“It’s shocking to discover … it’s a problem from the beginning to the end [of life],” she said.
“From birth to death,” echoed Theresa Flavin, who works as a dementia advocate and activist and is living with dementia herself.
Women in residential aged care who are living with dementia are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, the panel agreed.
Dr Catherine Barrett, director of Celebrate Ageing and project coordinator for the Ready to Listen campaign, said vulnerability to sexual assault is about “ageism, ableism and sexism”.
Too often staff believe when a person living with dementia is sexually assaulted it “doesn’t matter”. They believe the victim will “forget, there’s no harm done”, she said.
Flavin said there is an “inherent risk” built into living with dementia that is “built into [a] lack of functionality”.
“Compounding” this issue is a “lack of structure and support around us to keep us safe”, she said.
Flavin said dementia has altered her from being “a thinking person with feelings to being a feeling person who thinks”.
Kate Swaffer, who co-founded Dementia Alliance International and lives with dementia, said, “stigma, paternalism, therapeutic nihilism and a complete underestimation of capacity of all people with dementia,” are the reasons people living with dementia are vulnerable to sexual assault.
Swaffer said the fact that 58% of aged care workers believe sexual assault has no adverse impact on residents flies in the face of international studies, which have shown that “sexual assault has devastating impacts on people living in residential aged care, including high rates of mortality, physical injury, delirium, fear of the perpetrator, re-offending leading to distress, insomnia and failure to thrive.”
“It has to be stopped,” said Yumi Lee, CEO of the Older Women’s Network NSW.
The risk of sexual assault is magnified by staff shortages, which jeopardises the provision of even basic care, Lee said.
The line between a resident who’s expressing their right to sexual expression and determining sexual consent can be difficult for aged care providers to determine without the right training and information.
Providers reached out to Dr Barrett for help with the issue, and a Charter on Sexual Rights in Residential Aged Care has been developed.
At the heart of the campaign is a MAP (myths, facts and practical strategies), which outlines 10 ways aged care providers can improve their responses to and prevent sexual assault. Further resources are in development.
With NSW introducing positive consent laws recently, the panel acknowledged the altered landscape for consent, and noted that specialist training and resources are needed.
“We need to help older people and people in residential care understand that things have changed, we have changed, expectations have changed, and we’re going to support them with that,” said Flavin.
Barrett launched the ‘Ready to Listen’ campaign ahead of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on 15 June 2022, asking for people to listen to older people who report a sexual assault.
Dr Patterson said older people need to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.