A Place to Call Home: Episode 1 - Homelessness in older people
3:30AM Dec 23, 2022
This is Law for Community Workers on the Go a place to call home. This is a new series exploring homelessness in Australia, and the legal help available to those at risk of or experiencing homelessness. I want to begin by acknowledging that this recording was made on Aboriginal land and to acknowledge and pay respect to Aboriginal Elders past and present and to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people listening to this podcast. At the time of recording this first episode, greater numbers of Australians than ever are experiencing homelessness. In this series, I will speak to a number of different services supporting people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. Some of the groups within our community most vulnerable to homelessness include First Nations people, older people, people experiencing domestic and family violence, prisoners, people living with a disability or a mental health issue, people on low incomes and people who've experienced natural disaster. In this first episode I interview Mary Lovelock, Senior Solicitor in the Elder Abuse Service at Legal Aid New South Wales. Mary talks about the homelessness experienced by older Australians in the catchment area her service works in. Mary, thank you for joining me on the podcast today. Would you please introduce yourself and the Elder Abuse Service and tell us a bit about the work that the Elder Abuse Service does?
Thanks, Bridget. Hello, my name is Mary Lovelock. And I'm the Senior Solicitor of the Elder Abuse Service, which runs from the Legal Aid office in Gosford, and our service supports older people who live on the central coast or the lower hunter who are at risk of or experiencing elder abuse. I like to use a big wide definition of elder abuse, which is any act or omission that causes an older person harm or distress. I can talk a little bit more about that later. But the one thing that I wanted to say that was a little bit different about our team is that we have two social workers in our team and we have social workers and lawyers working together to support the older person.
Mary, in the clients that your service works with, are there any particular reasons that cause homelessness with those clients?
When I talk about elder abuse, what we see in our service is that seven out of 10 of the perpetrators of elder abuse are adult children, adult sons, adult daughters, and that creates a particular complexity for older people in managing that relationship. And one in four of our clients present as being at risk of or homelessness. And those two statistics, they play out in a number of different ways. But if I was to break it up, or I can, there's four different ways older clients present to us as being at risk of homelessness. So the first is where the adult child moves back home with the older person, it might be because their relationships broken down, they've lost their job. You know, during COVID, we saw a lot of that happen, you know, there's a general housing crisis, people don't have anywhere to live. And the adult child moves back in and starts to take control of the older person's life, all of a sudden, it's different, you know, instead of being the child, they take on the role of the adult, they start taking over the older person's finances, maybe they've got drug and alcohol or mental health issues, often they don't pay rent, and it becomes a risk for the older person to stay there.
At the extreme, we've seen older people who've been bumped out of their house to live in the garage while the adult son or daughter takes over the house. As I said, it's no longer safe for the older person to live there. Another variation of that is the adult child that actually never moves out of home, kind of like a failure to launch scenario. And then often, as I said, there's drug and alcohol, mental health issues involved. And it just becomes increasingly unsafe for the older person to stay in the house.
Other ways that it can present itself that we've seen in our service is around loaning money to family. It might be to guarantee the adult child's new business, or it might be to prop up their mortgage. And what's happened is the child's business has gone broke, and then the banks come looking out for the older person's property which is secured to the loan. Another variation of that around money is granny flat arrangements. First of all, what happens is there might be a health event and all of a sudden the older person needs a little bit more assistance and the adult son or daughter says don't worry mum or dad commonly with us, our house needs a bit of a renovation anyway. It might cost maybe 200 300,000. Build a granny flat out the back and also renovate At our house a little bit, you can come and live in our house forever in a day will look after you. That all sounds great, fantastic relief for the older person to have somewhere to live. But there's many ways that that relationship can go bad. And we've seen a lot of cases where the adult persons turned up at our service, and said, you know, my daughter's told me to get out of the house that said, I've got nowhere to live. And the last one I'll talk about, we see a little bit is inheritance in patients, you know, adult children putting pressure on their elderly parents trying to undermine them, sell the house. Now, moving to an aged care facility, it's great because you can give us money now leftover to help us buy a house, prop up our business, all those different ways. But they're all sort of aimed at sort of undermining the autonomy of the older person. They're about the four biggest ways. But as I said, one in four of our clients present as being at risk of or homeless.
That's a terribly shocking statistic. What happens to these older people, when they experience those situations that you've talked about? Where do they go,
I often say Elder abuse is hidden in plain sight, it often happens, and older people don't speak out about it. What I said at the beginning was most of the perpetrators of elder abuse that we see are adult kids, and makes it really difficult for the older person to be able to find their voice in that situation. Because no matter how old you are, if you're a parent, you're always trying to balance that I love my kids versus I need to be safe. It's a very difficult situation for older people to find themselves in, it's often very difficult for them to speak out, it's often very difficult for them to recognise it, I suppose that's kind of reflected in how clients come to us. So nine out of 10 clients come to our servers through the assistance of a key stakeholder.
So that might be a community worker who's working in a aged care service, it might be a community worker who's working in a homecare service, in a related sort of Housing Support Service. Often we get clients referred to us through social workers who work in hospitals, it might happen that the older person has a fall in the house, they come into hospital, they get the medical attention they need. And then if they're lucky, they might bump into a social worker and the social worker starts talking to them about tell us what it's like for you at home, you know, who's going to look after you when you go home? And then this story starts to be uncovered? Well, actually, it's, I don't feel good about going home. Tell us a little bit about that. And then you know, they're able to talk about what's happening for them at home, and then that social worker will refer clients to so the fact that our clients in the main come to us through social workers, emphasises the really important role that community workers play in identifying elder abuse and referring clients to us.
Another question that I need to ask you is how often domestic violence is a factor in these situations?
There's a huge overlap between domestic violence and elder abuse. But there's also a lot of areas that are outside of the domestic violence framework. I think what I like to say about that is big picture. Domestic violence is about usually supporting women and their children. And Elder abuse is supporting women from their adult children. So the focus is a little bit different. There's things like neglect, which is elder abuse, which is kind of falls outside the framework of domestic violence. There's things like grooming I never knew the word grooming apply to elder abuse, but might want to think about people that hang around clubs and pubs and focus on lonely older people and groom them for financial abuse often say elder abuse has all the complexities of domestic violence and then add a bit more add things like ageing, cognitive decline, need for help and dependents. As I said, it has all the complexities of domestic violence plus some extra.
This podcast forms part of legal AIDS Law for community workers series, it would be great if you could share any tips you might have for community workers, in the broad sense working with the clients that come to your service.
So often, there's triggers in an older person's life which might make them more susceptible to elder abuse. Like there's natural things that happen as your age you perhaps might need more assistance in the home, you might not be able to stay in the home anymore. So there's sort of these transition points in an older versus life, it might be, you know, when the older person applies through My Aged Care to get a home care package, all of a sudden they're having people come into their house. And that might be a great opportunity for that person that comes into the house to sort of assess what's going on in the house as well, too.
Often, when people are being discharged from hospital, a little bit of opportunity to be able to look more deeply about what's going on in the older person's life, often when a partner dies. So you might think about an older person that's been in a long term marriage or relationship for 3040 50 years, it's a huge event when that partner dies. And often that transition can be really traumatic. And often other people come in to take over the older person's life, the older person's decision making capacity can be undermined by family who want to take over what's going on. And sometimes there's a financial incentive. Sometimes it's about power between siblings, another red flag is kids moving either in or out of the house. So adult kids moving back into the house can be traumatic, but also adult kids who had been carers for their parents moving out of the house, that's another transition point, which can be a bit of a red flag. Obviously, for adults, considering going into some sort of granny flat or financial arrangement with their kids, that's a red flag. And we would encourage that of community workers see that happening with their clients are here but happening with their clients, they could just gently encourage their clients to get in touch with legal aid, have a bit of a chat about what's going on, get some support around that.
And the other thing, which is probably tied in with Home Care Packages is you know, if you get a diagnosis of a chronic illness, whether it be dementia or other chronic illness that will eventually lead to some sort of diminishment of your cognitive capacity. So they're all kind of red flags. They're also transition points for an older person, because we know that you know, there is a natural ageing process, which does lead you to have to rely on other people that does lead you to need support for decision making eventually. And the hope is that clients are supported through that process. And if they need assistance, they're referred to either Legal Aid or other services that can support them. I guess what I'd say is for community workers that are out there working with older people, the biggest thing that you can offer them is connection, connection to your service, connection to other services, and some understanding around that complexity of family relationships that so often plays such a large part of elder abuse.
Yes, definitely. Have you observed any systemic problems that contribute to the homelessness that older people experience?
Well, I guess I'm not the only person to talk about the housing crisis in New South Wales. The rental crisis, I think the lack of affordable rental accommodation does drive homelessness to a certain extent for older people. Because in our service, as we explained, we see adult kids moving back in with their parents because they've got nowhere else to live. Another contributor to that is the increasing casualization of the workforce. So younger people not having that job security. So they're unable to secure a mortgage, even though they might be earning money. They don't have the security for the bank to be able to provide them with a mortgage. So you know, they look to family to support them, I suppose are the two biggest things I'd say.
And this is a big question. But if you could ask government for something to alleviate homelessness, what would it be?
I read a great article in the newspaper on the weekend. You know, I think Australia's got something like $3 trillion in superannuation. And I think there's something to be said for thinking about how we could use that superannuation to invest in low cost housing, especially for essential workers who can't afford to live in the areas where they work. You think about holiday spots like Byron Bay or spots on the Central Coast and essential workers can't afford to live there anymore, let alone in the major regional centres or the CBD. Think there's real opportunities to be able to look at our enormous stockpile of superannuation and use that for affordable accommodation, not just for essential workers, but for essential workers and vulnerable people.
Your service is area-specific at this point, are there particular housing issues that you observe in the area that your service operates within?
I suppose only more generally, the lack of affordable rental accommodation, substandard rental accommodation, the length of public housing, waiting lists, the unsuitability sometimes or public housing for older people with the sister a number of older people who are living in community or public housing, where they're being stood over by other people in the complex and the lack of response to that in terms of like a fast transfer for somebody else, not recognising the the vulnerabilities of older people, and the inability to be able to protect themselves?
Is there an issue for older people in terms of public transport and having easy access to services in the areas in which they're living?
Thanks for reminding me about that. So the Central Coast just doesn't have the public transport infrastructure that other closer more urban environments have. And so often, clients are really isolated, whilst they might have housing, they don't have access to public transport and are reliant on family members. And we've talked about the difficulty with sometimes family members taking over the adults
Thanks for reminding me about that. So the Central Coast just doesn't have the public transport infrastructure that other closer, more urban environments have. And so often, clients are really isolated, whilst they might have housing, they don't have access to public transport and are reliant on family members. And we've talked about the difficulty with sometimes family members taking over the adults wives, or just to be able to easily access their local GP or other services, which are there to support them.
Mary, do you have a good news story that you could share with us about how your service has been able to assist an older person who was facing homelessness because of the issues that you've raised? And how are you able to help that person to regain security of their housing?
Yeah, so I talked about the difficulty older people have in speaking out about the adult kids that are living there, and basically asking them to leave. And if they won't leave, getting the police involved. No parent wants to get the police involved when it comes to their kids, but being able to support an older person to find their voice to say to their adult child, actually, you know, it's time you just move on. And if you don't move on, I'm going to call the police. We were able to support an older person whose adult son had been rampaging on various drugs, and had isolated her to live in just the front room of the house. And at times, if he went out of the house, he would lock that door so she couldn't leave the house. Despite this appalling treatment, this woman found it really difficult. When we said to her look, you know, you can just call the police take out an AVO and ask him to leave all she was concerned about was my son's got nowhere else to go. I can't make him homeless.
And this kind of story. It's a really common story that older people tell us. So we were able to work with this woman probably about eight weeks, sort of able to number one, reinstate the homecare services that were coming to her house so that the adult child had refused entry, we were able to connect her with some counselling and support through our social worker, we were able to reconnect with a neighbour who had previously been told that she couldn't come to the house anymore, because the adult son was ruling the roost, so to speak. And so just by that gradual reconnection, we were able to really support that older person to make that decision to get rid of her adult son, it didn't involve calling the police. But what we were able to do is we supported the older person to go and stay with her sister who lived about 50 kilometres away. And while she was staying with her sister, we arranged for an AVO to be taken out and the adult child had to leave the house. It sounds a bit extreme, doesn't it. But I suspect that people who are listening today will know variations of that story. And so the big take home from that is that in isolation, it's really hard for older people to speak out. And we know that isolation is a huge risk factor for elder abuse. And the remedy for that is connecting that older person to services that are there to support them. hours is one of a number of services that can support other people. And it just like you to keep that in mind when you're working with your older clients.
It does sound extreme. However, the circumstances in which the lady was forced to live in were extreme.
They were extreme, but they're not uncommon. They don't have to be forced into a front room of their house to be able to ask that adult child to leave the adult child who lives there has absolutely no legal right to stay in the house, no matter if they've lived there for 20 years. If it's the older person that owns that house, they have the right to choose who they live with. But that's the tension that older people find themselves in. I mean, in a rental situation, it can be even more precarious, because it might be that the adult child's moved into the house because they've got nowhere else to go. They're not on the tenancy. And it places the older person's tenancy at risk as well, too. So as I said, the story I told you is a bit extreme, but there's all variations of that. And the bottom line is that if it's the adult house, the adult child has no legal right to stay in the property at all.
And Mary, what's the number for your service? Should anybody listening wish to contact your service?
We run out of Gosford legal aid so our number is 43245611. If you contact any legal aid office, they will be able to transfer you to our service. As I said, our service assists clients who live on the Central Coast or lower Hunter. Outside that service. There's other support services. There's the elder abuse hotline, which is run through the ageing and disability commission, their numbers 1-800-628-8221. And there's also seniors rights, which operates a statewide service.
Thank you, Mary. The number for the seniors right service, which provides legal advice to seniors across New South Wales 02 92813600. If you don't live within the catchment area of the elder abuse service, you can seek legal help by calling law access on one 1300 888529 or by contacting your local community legal centre. These numbers and links to other services will be provided in the show notes for this episode. That's all for this first episode. Please refer to the show notes for the telephone numbers referred to in this episode and for links to other services where you can get help. Thanks for joining us