The New South Wales Parliamentary Inquiry into elder abuse has heard that the problem is rife, hearing that an estimated 50,000 NSW seniors have experienced some form of violence, exploitation or neglect, most often perpetrated by a trusted family member.
Nursing homes are common settings for abuse, with evidence that understaffing and lack of supervision is leading to an increase in violence between residents.
Reportable assaults in nursing homes have increased 86 per cent since 2009 even though the number of residents rose only 20 per cent over that period, Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association senior advisor Paul Versteege told the public hearing at NSW Parliament on Monday. He called on the state government to introduce mandatory staff-to-resident ratios, with the inquiry hearing some nursing homes may only be staffed by one or two people on certain shifts.
A staff survey by the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association found three-quarters of workers viewed understaffing as an increase to the risk of abuse in their workplace.
The association’s professional officer Helen Macukewicz said many staff would not report abuse or neglect as they feared reprisals such as losing shifts.
“They fear losing their job,” she said. “It is a real dilemma for them. There aren’t adequate protections for them. None of them want to be complicit in abuse and unfortunately some of the systemic issues with ratios make them complicit.”
Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan said elder abuse was under-reported and called for improved data collection and a community campaign to raise awareness.
Financial exploitation is the most common form of abuse, with Ms Ryan recommending financial institutions train frontline staff to watch for suspicious activity.
“These days, older people have assets,” she said. “Most old people have a home and that home is now worth a lot. They have a home which their greedy and unprincipled family members want to grab.”
Dorothy’s Story of Financial Abuse
In 2012, no longer able to care for herself, Dorothy moved into the housing commission place in south-west Sydney that her daughter Debbie shared with her partner, Wayne, and their two girls. “Before I went there [they ate] just sausages and mince and stuff,” Dorothy claims. After she moved in, it was $75 a kilogram “cattleman’s cutlets”. She paid Debbie $350 a week rent plus bills. At the same time, she says her daughter was receiving a carer’s payment.
“I used to say, ‘Oh, you got to help them’ – well, I’ve always helped all the kids.” She says she bought them a new lounge and television set. She spent $4000 on beds for the family. She forked out $9000 to pay fines that Wayne had incurred for driving offences.
One day, Dorothy asked Debbie to get her some money from the bank. She handed over her bank book and a note authorising a withdrawal on her behalf. Her daughter returned without the bank book – they were, she said, being phased out. Dorothy claims she never saw the keycard that replaced the book – Debbie kept it. She lost track of her account balance. But it wasn’t a problem; she trusted her daughter.
Then she discovered that her daughter had been forging her signature and using her credit card; she had racked up a debt of $4000 on flights, restaurant bills, gym clothes, appliances, cigarettes, alcohol and beauty treatments.
Since earlier this year, when Dorothy moved in with her grand-daughter Sandra, they’ve studied old bank and store charge statements; they estimate that Debbie went through tens of thousands of her mother’s money. “It would be impossible to put your finger on it because every time she opened her purse it was Nan’s shout,” says Sandra.
In hindsight, Dorothy’s son Gary realises that things were not right. “Every time you rang they said, ‘Oh, she’s in bed asleep.’ They had her doped up.” Sometimes she’d go to stay with Gary. He’d drive her back. “I used to notice the change in Mum; soon as we got pretty close … a couple of times I looked over she had tears running down her face. She didn’t want to go back there.”
Late in 2014, Dorothy had another fall. A family chasm opened in a hospital ward. According to Dorothy, at some point in the next few weeks, Debbie and her family held a garage sale to dispose of the contents of her home, which had been unoccupied since she’d moved to her daughter’s place. Sandra found out about it on Facebook. “They told me they were going to have a garage sale, but they told me it was just little things that we didn’t want,” Dorothy claims. “It’s all gone. Even me wedding ring she’s got.”
Dorothy hasn’t spoken to or seen her daughter in months and says she never wants to again. Unfortunately, this kind of elder abuse is one of the most common we see at Estate Battles.
How to protect the elderly from financial abuse:
Maintain open communication with the older person. Anyone trying to abuse the older person will try to isolate them.
Take any concerns seriously. Never assume that the older person is making it up.
Watch for changes in older person’s appearance or mood. These are good signs that something is not right.
Recognise signs of financial abuse, such as unpaid bills or missing money.
The biggest risk factor for financial abuse is cognitive impairment in the older person. Ensure that the correct legal protections are in place so that financial abuse cannot take place. If you don’t know whether any protections are in place, or if you suspect elder abuse, seek legal advice immediately. The sooner you seek help the easier it is to remedy the situation.
Contact us today for your free, 10-minute phone consultation.