Why We Need ToCriminalise ElderFinancial Abuse

Australia’s Commissioner of Age has called for elder abuse to be criminalised, saying it’s a hidden problem that is getting worse as Australia’s population ages.

It is estimated that 6% of Australia’s older people are victims of elder abuse and are suffering in silence. That number is likely to be higher, with many older people too ashamed or afraid to report a person they loved and trusted.

The most common kind of elder abuse is financial abuse, where older people are unduly influenced, deceived or exploited out of their assets – and the most common kind of perpetrator is a close family member.

Jenny, whose name has been changed, believes her 93-year-old mother is the victim of elder abuse.

“This wasn’t part of the plan,” she told ABC program 7.30.

“Mum ended up suffering and she lost her home.”

After their father died, Jenny’s brother was given control over their mother’s finances. Without telling the rest of family, he sold the family home, which was worth close to $2 million.

“What he did was technically legal,” Jenny said. “Nowhere in my mind can I see where that was the right thing, to displace my mother and make her homeless at 92 with Alzheimer’s. My father had wanted for mum to stay in her home till her dying days and have 24-hour care, if that’s what she needed. The situation is now she is in a nursing home on the pension.”

Jenny's mum is now on the pension in a nursing home.

Jenny’s mum is now on the pension in a nursing home.

Jenny’s brother told her he had invested the funds, but she said no money was going towards the care of their mother.

Driving the increasing rates of elder financial abuse is a term coined “inheritance impatience”. Police Superintendent Rob Critchlow says that the police service sees it all too often.

“There is a concept called inheritance impatience, they want what you’ve got,” he told 7:30. “We are seeing older people imprisoned in their homes; we are seeing them being robbed of their savings of their superannuation, of their homes. We are seeing people commit serious offences, multi hundred thousand dollar frauds, thefts of a large scale … and we often lack the ability to prosecute.”

There are now calls for laws to be introduced that make the financial abuse of older people a criminal offence, with penalties including a jail sentence. Jenny agrees wholeheartedly with the calls.

“I’d dearly love for the law to be changed so older people have protection,” she said. “When they lose capacity, who is going to stand up for them?”

Meanwhile, a New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into elder abuse has heard that elder abuse is more prevalent when an older person is isolated.

A community education campaign, a fairer court system and more training to help doctors and religious leaders identify victims are among the measures recommended in more than 60 submissions to the parliamentary inquiry.

The Council on the Ageing (COTA) is calling for a community education campaign “to promote understanding” and steps to ensure older people are not isolated.

COTA says isolation is “the great enabler of abuse”. COTA NSW’s chief executive Ian Day said: “Nothing much is being done to assist people who are being abused to be empowered.”

COTA estimates that as many as 20,000 people over 65 are financially or physically abused by a relative or carer.

The NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association, in its submission, has called on the NSW Government to “urge the Commonwealth government to create a single comprehensive adult/elder abuse strategy”. It says that 8% of the nurses see elder abuse on every shift they work, an indication of how widespread the issue is. The association said “the definition of what constitutes a criminal and reportable offence” should be “extended to capture the full range of abusive practices that might be encountered by older people”.

NSW Legal Aid solicitor Lee Critchley

NSW Legal Aid solicitor Lee Critchley

Legal Aid NSW solicitor Lee Critchley said it was extremely difficult for older people who had suffered financial abuse to get justice unless they took their case to the Supreme Court.

“We’ve got a situation where we’ve got older people who own properties that were once considered quite modest,” she said. “They’re now worth a huge amount of money, but their adult children are not in a position financially to purchase their own property and they’ve coined the term ‘inheritance impatience’, where the adult children already considers that asset to be their own and they’re impatient to get their hands on it.”

Ms Critchley said Legal Aid NSW saw the worst cases, often involving older people at risk of losing everything.

She urged parents to seek independent legal advice when putting their home on the line to help one of their adult children. “If your adult child isn’t in a position to borrow money without you having to put up your house as security, then the bank probably thinks they’re a bad credit risk,” she said.

You can make sure that there are joint powers-of-attorney so that it’s harder for one person to gain sole access to an older person’s estate. You can also ensure that an older person isn’t being isolated from family members so that nobody knows what’s going on. But the best way to ensure an older person isn’t been financially exploited is to keep an open dialogue with the older person. A study found that over 80% of older people who talked about their finances openly with family members and professionals felt more comfortable about protecting themselves from financial abuse.

If you have any concerns about elder financial abuse, contact us today. We offer a FREE, 10-minute phone consultation during which we can advise you of the next steps.