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New education programs launched to help prevent abuse and sexual assault of older people

The Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN) has launched a new education program to tackle abuse of older people.

The new online learning package, Abuse of the older person: eLearning program for health professionals, was developed in collaboration with Age Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson AO, and a national coalition of health professionals and funded by the Australian Government Department of Health. 

It features 40 online learning modules developed to protect people in aged care, but will also be aimed at health and allied health workers, such as GPs and optometrists, who may be the only people some senior Australians confide in if they are assaulted.

“Assaults on the elderly, in any form, are deplorable,” Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck said.

“One of the five pillars of our comprehensive response is a $942 million investment in driving systemic improvements to residential quality and safety, and the learning package is certainly consistent with that objective."

OPAN is also working with researcher Dr Catherine Barrett to develop a program specifically aimed at stopping sexual abuse in aged care.

The first SIRS insight report, released in June, revealed that during the period 1 April to 12 May 2021, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission received reports of 149 incidents categorised as "unlawful sexual contact or inappropriate sexual conduct" from aged care providers.

Testimony heard during the royal commission revealed that there are 50 sexual assaults of residents per week, nationally. 

The #ReadyToListen project includes a leadership course with a view to effecting cultural change in the sector.

"That's really at the heart and soul of this work," Barrett told Aged Care Insite.

"We'll be delivering education but then really importantly, we'll be working with the staff to say, what are the issues that they see, or staff or residents or families, what are the issues they see and what are the resources they want?"

Over 12 months Barrett will engage with 30 aged care organisations to develop these resources and provide vital education to staff.

Barrett has advocated for the prevention of sexual assault, particularly of older women, for the last 25 years and she believes that education and more conversation is needed in society to truly make change.

"I think there is a myth that old age is a protective factor against sexual assault," she said.

"And I say to people, It's not, but having conversations about sexual assault is."

Breaking the silence that often surrounds sexual assault is key to providing a safe environment for older people living in aged care, Barrett believes.

"We'll not only talk about it, we'll educate service providers on how to talk about it, and how to do something effective about it, so that's it.

"Because perpetrators who are intentionally maliciously targeting women with dementia will do so because they know they can get away with it. Or they know the old woman won't be believed if they report sexual assault."

Barrett applauds OPAN for being a leader among the peak bodies on this issue.  

"I don't know of any other CEO of peak bodies, up until this point, who've stood up and said, 'we've not done enough and it's time for change'."

Craig Gear, OPAN chief executive, said: "We need to listen to and learn from older women how to create pathways so they can safely disclose sexual assault. The #ReadyToListen project is the start of an ongoing process of acknowledging that older people are sexually assaulted, that we must hold perpetrators accountable and develop prevention strategies."

Providers and staff can access OPAN's online learning modules here.

Expressions of interest are still open for Dr Barrett's leadership course, more information can be found here.

For information or support regarding aged care please call the Older Persons Advocacy Network on 1800 700 600 or visit opan.org.au.

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