Working with people from culturally diverse backgrounds


Photographer: Gayle Mather for Umeewarra Aboriginal Media Association

What do I need to know about working with Aboriginal people?

White colonisation of Australia has had a dramatic effect on Aboriginal people. So much so that Aboriginal Australians grow older at a much faster rate than white Australians and have a significantly shorter life expectancy. For this reason, when choosing an age to define ‘older’ for Aboriginal Australians, 50-55 years of age is commonly used. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians may be eligible for aged care services at a younger age than other Australians.

The term ‘Elder’ has different meanings for different Aboriginal communities. In some, an ‘Elder’ can be any respected member of the community regardless of  age. It is important to make it clear that elder abuse is something that can happen to any older Aboriginal person, not just Elders. Some organisations use the term ‘family violence against aunties and uncles’ in preference to ‘elder abuse’. Others simply use: ‘abuse of older people’.

The incidence of abuse, including abuse of older people, is particularly high in Aboriginal communities. It’s important to be aware of the factors that play a part in this, including the impact of dispossession of land and culture, the breakdown of traditional ways of life, as well as racist attitudes and treatment resulting in high unemployment, poverty and drug and alcohol abuse.

Many older Aboriginal people have lived through significant challenges.  Many are also expected by their community to take on responsibility for multiple roles, such as caring for children who have been removed from parents due to abuse.  It’s important to be aware of these challenges when working with older Aboriginal people. It’s also important to recognise that Aboriginal people may need to receive service support from generic or Aboriginal-specific organisations, depending on the person’s own choice and circumstances.

More information

Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Newsletter December 2012: ‘Family Violence Against Aunties and Uncles’.

Elder Abuse Prevention Strategy Workshop 1 Manual 1 p21-22

With Respect to Age – 2009 see pages 74-75

Seniors Rights Victoria brochure for Aboriginal people (currently being produced – expected launch Oct 2013)

Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention & Legal Service

Does elder abuse occur more often in culturally and linguistically diverse communities?

There is a lack of research on elder abuse in the context of cultural diversity or migrant communities in Australia. There is no evidence to suggest that there is a higher prevalence of elder abuse in any cultural community. However, broad-based consultations held by the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria indicate that where elder abuse occurs, people from migrant and non-English speaking backgrounds can be more vulnerable.

More information

Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria. (2009). Reclaiming respect and dignity: Elder abuse prevention in ethnic communities. Melbourne

Does elder abuse affect people differently depending on their cultural background?

Elder abuse is a complex and sensitive issue, making it difficult to identify all factors associated with an increased risk of abuse. There are a number of possible risk factors, all of which can apply to people from any cultural background.

Some factors including isolation, dependency, cultural factors, lack of information about rights and stress in the care relationship are of particular concern for older people from non-English speaking backgrounds. Lack of English language skills, cultural influences and smaller family networks can mean that an older person is more vulnerable to abuse where it occurs, and that they are less likely to identify abuse or seek support.

Different cultural world views may affect the way that elder abuse is perceived. Older people from collectivist cultures may not highly value or subscribe to the concept of individual rights. They may also be less likely to consider action that separates them from their family. The principle of ‘what’s best for the common good’ is more likely to be applied than the individualistic view of ‘what’s in it for me’.

Intergenerational misunderstandings and conflicting expectations are common to all families. However, the process of migration can exacerbate this issue. For example, older people can cling strongly to the traditional values and practices of their culture while younger people identify more strongly with the dominant values of contemporary Australia.

What is the role of bilingual workers and ethno-specific agencies in cases of suspected elder abuse?

Many agencies cater for culturally and linguistically diverse people; many have bilingual workers on staff and routinely use interpreters.

Bilingual workers may have developed trust and rapport with their clients over a period of time and may be well-positioned to recognise and respond to elder abuse. They can be the “eyes and ears” for elder abuse situations.

There may be a lower literacy levels amongst older people from non-English speaking backgrounds in both their original language as well as English and for this reason translated written materials should not be relied upon. Face-to-face contact is best, and the use of interpreters and bilingual workers is very important in dealing with the sensitive issue of elder abuse.

Some communities have very few interpreters available and all may be known to the client and /or their family. Some people may not want to involve anyone from their own community, including an interpreter. This can be due to fear of being shut out from that community or feelings of shame . It’s important to respect this and find alternative ways of supporting the older person.

Ethno-specific agencies can provide an extra layer of bi-cultural support in elder abuse situations. This may include cultural information on how elder abuse is perceived in particular communities, and the best way to approach the situation sensitively. Ethnic communities are often close knit and may not look to outsiders for assistance, which may create a barrier to disclosure. There may be additional barriers to disclosure in some ethnic communities, due to shame and the fear of “losing face”.

“Mainstream” agencies are encouraged to consult with ethnic agencies on cultural issues and work together to develop appropriate responses to elder abuse in culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

How can I get information about working with a particular cultural group or community?

The Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria is currently undertaking a project to develop community education resources to raise awareness about elder abuse within six communities.  Community education resources currently available are listed below, more will follow.

Chinese-speaking community resource kit on elder abuse prevention

Filipino community education resource kit

Greek-speaking community resource kit on elder abuse prevention

Macedonian community education kit

We recommend that caution be applied when making any generalisations based on ethnicity or cultural background. As with all communities, there is considerable diversity of views, beliefs and attitudes within different populations. However, this information provides the broad cultural context for elder abuse and its prevention and may help service providers understand CALD clients and communities better in relation to this issue.

More information:

The Centre for Cultural Diversity in Ageing has a range of multilingual resources and guides to culturally inclusive service delivery.

The Victorian Multicultural Commission maintains a searchable database of ethno-specific community organisations.

Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health provides information and training to help Australian services meet the needs of a culturally diverse population.

Are elder abuse resources available in languages other than English?

Information brochures for older people are currently available in Greek, Chinese, Serbian, Tagalog and Macedonian. Click here. They have been produced by the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria and more languages will be added soon.

Victorian Government Fact Sheets on elder abuse prevention are available from Seniors Online in the following languages: Arabic, Assyrian, Bosnian, Cantonese, Croatian, Filipino, Greek, Hindu, Hungarian, Italian, Macedonian, Maltese, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian, Somali, Spanish, Turkish, Vietnamese.


Some content on this page has been drawn from With Respect to Age 2009 and Elder Abuse Prevention Strategy Workshop Manual 1.

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