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Protection for the purse is paramount to halt elder abuse

Financial abuse of older people is on the rise; a trustworthy, competent attorney is an essential safeguard.

With at least 5 per cent of Australia’s elderly reporting some form of physical, social, financial, emotional or sexual mistreatment, elder abuse is not the rare and incomprehensible act you would naturally presume.

In fact it can be systematic, it can be hurtful and for some, it is very, very real.

With family members frequently the perpetrators of elder abuse, the topic is often shrouded in secrecy and shame. By its definition, elder abuse is the mistreatment of an older person committed by someone with whom the person has a relationship of trust. This simple fact makes the abuse difficult for a third party to identify and even harder for the victim to admit, accept and report.

As the population ages, the number of vulnerable people increases, meaning that elder abuse is becoming one of the most serious social issues affecting older Australians today. In the 10 years to June 2011, the number of people aged 85 and over in Australia increased by more than 40 per cent.

From community education and awareness through to advice on spotting the early warning signs, it’s time a light was shone on this dark and difficult topic.

Financial exploitation: the most common elder abuse

A recent study found that financial abuse is the most common form reported. This is a fact to which State Trustees can attest, having handled more than 120 cases involving financial elder abuse in the past month alone.

These cases generally include incidents in which a person in a position of trust, such as a son or daughter, takes or misuses their parent’s money, property or assets for their own personal gain.

From grandchildren manipulating their grandparents to prevent the sale of their property, to children high-jacking their elderly parents’ pensions and life savings to pay for their own living expenses, the lengths abusers go to in exploiting the vulnerability of older people is extraordinary.

A combination of shame, fear of not being believed, and some form of reliance on the perpetrator makes that this type of abuse chronically under-reported.

There are a number of circumstances that may increase the likelihood an individual will fall victim to financial elder abuse. These include:

  • Diminished capacity due to dementia and related illnesses
  • Isolation and dependence on others
  • Reliance on others for transactions and services relating to the management of finances, particularly if they are from a non-English speaking background
  • Women over the age of 80, although in some cases as young as 65

There are also a number of early warning signs that someone may be suffering from financial elder abuse. These include:

  • Suspicious changes in wills or powers of attorney
  • Lack of money for day-to-day items
  • Financial activity the person could not have carried out alone; for example, withdrawals from your bedridden mother’s bank account
  • Large and unexplained sums of money missing from a bank account
  • Bills not being paid
  • Unusual purchases

What can be done to prevent financial elder abuse?

State Trustees strongly believes prevention and early intervention are the keys to making a difference for Australia’s ageing population. We urge anyone who thinks they could be at risk of elder abuse now or in the future to take a hands-on approach.

Recommended steps for prevention:

  • Appoint an independent attorney for financial matters or, if appointing family members, appoint more than one attorney for financial matters
  • Get independent advice
  • Keep your will up to date
  • Make loans legally binding
  • Formally document living arrangements.

An enduring power of attorney (financial) lets someone else help you with your financial and legal decisions. Your financial attorney should be someone who can be impartial and trustworthy, is able to manage any possible conflict and has the time to carry out your wishes accordingly.

Although a friend or family member might like to help out, it may be simpler and less stressful to appoint a professional organisation. The most important thing is your confidence that the person or organisation you choose will act in accordance with your wishes and best interests.

Case study: how a financial attorney can help

Joyce (not her real name) was aged in her 70s and had built a large investment portfolio worth more than $1 million dollars with her late husband. She had reached the point where she had trouble managing her financial affairs and her son suggested she nominate him as her financial attorney.

Believing this was a good idea, Joyce was happy to appoint her son. Her son convinced Joyce that she would be unable to have a pension if the house remained in her name, and persuaded her to sign the property over to him.

Unfortunately, soon after she did this, her son’s marriage broke down. With the house now in her son’s name, his wife was entitled to half of its value. As a result, the property was sold with the proceeds being split evenly between both parties. Joyce was then forced to move into care, as she no longer had a home to live in.

Joyce decided to appoint State Trustees as her new financial attorney, revoking the appointment of her son. State Trustees was then able to step  in to protect Joyce’s investments from further depletion. Joyce’s remaining assets were secured and negotiations were commenced with Centrelink for  a pension.

Where to get help

To help prevent financial elder abuse, all those at risk should ensure they have an updated will and enduring power of attorney in place, using a professional organisation.

If you are the victim of financial elder abuse or know of someone who is at risk, contact the relevant organisation in your state.

Sandy Probert is a relationship manager at State Trustees.

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  1. A concerned individual

    This is a very real and important topic. But, of course, elder abuse extends well beyond financial abuse. One of the key risks in the move to complete package portability will be the loss of the inside advocate in good case management. Previously, good case managers identified the early signs of elder abuse and could intervene. With package portability, how easy is it for offenders to simply apply pressure to shift the package to a “less troublesome agency”?

    Consumer empowerment is a big step forward, but lets not lose sight of one of the greatest safeguards in our Homecare system so far – an *independent* Case Manager.

  2. Elder Abuse is the unseen issue of our time. The fundamental element of elder abuse is the shift in the power balance between an ageing person and their children (or other person in a position of trust). It is the awareness of elder abuse that is rising, not necessarily the incidence because the extent and scope of elder abuse is unknown and little national research has been conducted to pin down this information. We certainly need the research so that we can better target our limited resources for avoidance and recovery as appropriate.