World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is 15 June each year. This annual event acknowledges the prevalence of elder abuse, educates communities and individuals to recognise the signs of abuse, and encourages loved ones victims and others to speak up and to seek support and assistance. So, what is elder abuse and what can you do about it?
It is difficult to imagine that anyone would harm, intimidate or take advantage of aged and vulnerable persons. Unfortunately, however, elder abuse occurs and is prevalent within our society and sadly, the perpetrators are often those entrusted with caring for older generations.
Elder abuse can be defined as a single or ongoing act or omission that causes harm or distress to an aged person. Abuse can generally be categorised as:
- physical – pushing, shoving, rough treatment or sexual abuse;
- neglect – failing to provide adequate necessities and / or maintain hygiene;
- psychological – emotional abuse, social segregation, ridiculing and belittling;
- financial exploitation – unauthorised use of a person’s property or money.
Harmful conduct is typically carried out in circumstances where there is an expectation of trust between the victim and perpetrator who is, ironically, often a caregiver or family member.
According to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2017 National Legal Response to Elder Abuse, psychological abuse and financial exploitation are the most common types of abuse experienced and, in many cases, these categories co-exist.
Specific examples of psychological abuse include bullying and harassment, treating an elderly person as somebody lacking intelligence or mental capacity, threatening to send an elderly person to a nursing home or otherwise depriving him or her of social interaction such as seeing certain family members or friends.
Financial abuse occurs when a person illegally and improperly uses an elderly person’s financial resources or property for their own, or a third party’s, benefit. This could happen in various ways including:
- misusing a power of attorney and / or making unauthorised withdrawals from a bank account through an ATM or an internet transfer;
- depriving an elderly person access to his / her own funds or property;
- manipulating an elderly person into gifting or loaning money or transferring assets to others;
- putting a person under duress to include certain gift provisions in a Will or to make changes to an existing Will;
- pressuring a person to grant a power of attorney or appointment of and enduring guardian or substitute decision maker.
Australian jurisdictions have access centres, helplines and resource units to assist those experiencing or affected by elder abuse, as well as Tribunals or Courts that deal with disputes and issues concerning allegations of abuse. In South Australia the Adult Safeguarding Unit can also assist.
If you are a victim of elder abuse you can speak with somebody you trust about your concerns, obtain advice from one of these centres, or contact a lawyer.
If you suspect someone as being a potential victim of elder abuse you should raise your concerns with that person before suggesting a plan to obtain help and move forward.
You may notice an elderly friend or relative becoming reclusive or missing social events, having insufficient funds to pay for necessities or outgoings (particularly when compared with their financial position), suddenly becoming friendly with a new carer or a person showing special interest in the elderly person. You may just know it when you see it.
As a suspected abuser may often be a relative or somebody close to the older person, it can be difficult and challenging to identify and address cases of elder abuse. It is even more complex if the alleged abuser has been appointed as the power of attorney for the victim. Sometimes the older person may not even realise they are the subject of abuse as they may be quite dependent on their perpetrator or may have some degree of diminished mental incapacity. In such cases, it is wise to seek advice from a lawyer.
Protecting yourself from elder abuse
The following can help protect you from elder abuse:
- Appoint somebody you trust, whether that be a friend or family member, to be your power of attorney and substitute decision maker. Talk to your lawyer about the types and scope of powers you would like to give this person or persons and in what circumstances they may exercise the power. You can appoint different people for different roles, more than one person, or alternate people. Ask plenty of questions and be sure that you fully understand the appointment before signing anything. You can also put certain safeguards in place such as requirement to have your accounts audited each year by an independent person or a requirement to have multiple appointees act jointly.
- Consider putting in place an advance care directive setting out your wishes and directions regarding your future health care, lifestyle and accommodation arrangements if you were to become unable to make those decisions yourself.
- Do not agree to lend money, or to transfer or mortgage significant assets without obtaining independent legal advice and having the transaction documented in writing. Your lawyer should be independent (not chosen by the person to whom you are lending money). Advice should be provided to you alone and not in the company of the proposed borrower or transferee.
- If you decide to gift money, talk to Centrelink or a financial advisor first so you understand any potential adverse effect this may have on any pension entitlements.
- Ensure that you have a valid Will, and that you understand the effect of the Will and that you know where the original Will can be located. Your lawyer can hold the original Will on your behalf without charge and provide you with a copy. Review your Will regularly to ensure it reflects any changes in your circumstances or your choice of executor and / or beneficiaries.
- If something doesn’t sound right, there’s a good chance that it isn’t right. Speak up, tell somebody you trust or call a support service.
Elder abuse is an increasing issue. Public education, is crucial to identify abuse.
If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on (08) 8344 6422 or email [email protected].