Athletics great Sir Peter Snell has become a patron of a programme to raise awareness about senior issues including elder abuse.

Seniors Minister Maggie Barry announced Sir Peter's appointment as a patron of the "Super Seniors Champions" programme to mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

"Sir Peter is an inspirational role model to older New Zealanders and many people feel they know him through his sporting success, his books and his life's work. He is also a distinguished academic with published research on exercise and ageing."

Sir Peter, 78, said it was important that seniors didn't suffer physical, mental and financial abuse from people who prey on their vulnerability.

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There are around 2000 cases of elder abuse reported annually in New Zealand, although experts say many cases are unreported and estimate between 17,000 and 25,000 older Kiwis experience some sort of abuse each year. About three-quarters of alleged abusers are family members, meaning cases often go unreported.

From July 1 a new elder abuse response service (EARS) will operate, with a free phone line - 0800 EA NOT OK (0800 32 668 65) - set up to ensure people can report abuse and get help.

Elder abuse is an umbrella term and can be physical, financial and psychological.

Age Concern says the frequency of elder abuse in New Zealand will only increase with an ageing population and people struggling with increasing house prices and rents. The organisation delivers 19 of the Government's elder abuse and prevention services.

In the worst cases elder abuse is prosecuted. Hawkes Bay woman Joanne Quinn was jailed in 2014 for neglecting her 82-year-old mother, found embedded in a couch with rotting leg wounds.

But Age Concern attempts to resolve many cases without legal action.

Before the last election Labour promised to establish an Aged Care Commissioner to investigate claims of elder abuse, neglect and financial mismanagement, which it said was a response to requests from Grey Power and the Aged Care Association.

In April, Sir Peter, who lives in Dallas, Texas, donated a collection of medals, trophies and a running shoe to Te Papa, including his gold medals from the Rome and Tokyo Olympic games.