Here’s an increasingly common scenario occurring in the Hunter. Family members of an older person offer to help look after them. The deal is the older person gifts the proceeds from the sale of their home or money from their savings or super. The older person is to live with them or perhaps a granny flat will be built.
On the surface it sounds like family helping each other out. But what if, after the deal is done, the family dynamics change? It seems unthinkable (sadly it is not) but what if the family members’ intention was about “inheritance impatience” and there never was an intention to provide care?
Last Friday was World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). It put the spotlight on this increasingly common issue – not just physical or emotional abuse but financial abuse. It is estimated that at least five per cent of older people experience financial abuse, although there is much under-reporting. With more than 113,000 people in the Hunter aged 65 years and above (2016 Census) that is potentially more than 5600 local older Australians being taken advantage of, often by family members or carers.
Other common elder abuse scenarios include: attorneys misusing their powers under an enduring power of attorney; an older person suffering as they are caught in a family dispute over who should make decisions for them; and a third party ingratiating themselves into the life of an older person for financial gain.
During WEAAD, bankers, lawyers, social welfare groups and seniors groups called on governments and the community to do more to tackle this insidious issue.
It is a year since the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) released its national inquiry report into elder abuse. There’s been some progress but the wheels are turning too slowly. In February, the Federal Government said it will progress a national plan and in the May budget committed $22 million over five years to standardise powers of attorney. The national plan is critical and must address the ALRC’s 43 recommendations and issues such as better education of people working in financial services, health and aged care and social services in identifying elder abuse.
It needs to be easier to report suspected financial elder abuse to a dedicated body. Enduring powers of attorney are a common vehicle for elder abuse. A national register will make it easier to check their validity.
There are steps people can take to protect themselves as they grow older. First, think twice before giving anyone, even a family member, bank or credit card details. Everyone should have a will. Older people should consider an enduring power of attorney and other estate planning documents to ensure their wishes are maintained. Reviewing those documents every couple of years is another way to protect against changing family dynamics or circumstances.
What is most important in preparing these documents is independent legal advice. Don’t go to the lawyer suggested by a family member and don’t attend an appointment with the person likely to benefit. Giving two people joint power of attorney is an option. Never sign anything unless you fully understand it.
Being healthy, social and connected to others may also safeguard against elder abuse. Isolated people are more vulnerable.
More information is available from the NSW Elder Abuse Helpline. Visit elderabusehelpline.com.au