Elder abuse – what should advisers look out for?

Despite more attention being given to the problem of elder abuse, and some headway being made in terms of preventing it, detecting it and punishing the guilty, it’s likely that advisers will encounter a client who is either the victim of elder abuse or potentially the perpetrator.

High and rising property prices, and the associated decline in housing affordability, provides a powerful incentive for some people to be tempted into elder abuse.

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In this article we explore why detecting elder abuse is difficult and what advisers should look out for. We focus on financial elder abuse rather than physical elder abuse because as an adviser you are much more likely to encounter financial elder abuse. To demonstrate how cases of elder abuse can be difficult to detect we detail two examples from submissions to a Western Australian Parliamentary Legislative Council Select Committee inquiry into elder abuse.

Why elder abuse is not always obvious

Detecting elder abuse is usually a qualitative process. A situation where an elderly person gifts $300,000 to an unrelated person who has cared for them for ten years is not automatically a clear case of elder abuse. The elderly person may be extremely wealthy and the care that was given may have been considerable and unpaid – in which case it becomes difficult to call this situation elder abuse.

The broader circumstances need to be considered when assessing elder abuse. In the above example, if the care had been minimal and the sum of money was substantial relative to the elderly person’s overall wealth then it could easily be considered elder abuse. Understanding why a gift was made is also important - was it unprompted or was the potential abuser using coercion. The qualitative element is a factor that advisers should be aware of when considering whether their clients are potentially encountering elder abuse.

What are the risk factors for elder abuse?

In their submission to the WA Select Committee, the WA Public Trustee said that common risk factors1 include:

  • the victim having a cognitive impairment – dementia or an acquired brain injury
  • how dependent the victim was owing to lack of experience with managing finances, or illness or injury
  • the victim being single or widowed
  • the victim being isolated, either because they have no family or as a result of intentional isolation by the perpetrator
  • the victim having adult children or grandchildren who collude to remove assets from the older person due to their need or greed, or to safeguard their ‘inheritance’ from being used to care for the older person in a care facility.

Case studies

Outlined below are two examples of relatively common types of elder abuse.

SCENARIO ONE: Sons and granddaughters

A granddaughter in Western Australia took her father and uncles to the WA State Administrative Tribunal to have them removed as guardians of their parents’ estate and to have her grandparents’ property returned to them. The father and uncles, who had powers of guardianship over their parents – both of whom suffered from dementia – took ownership of their parents’ property. It was only when the granddaughter discovered this and decided to challenge her father and uncles that this case became known.

This scenario shows how difficult it can be to detect and prove elder abuse because many families will not reveal elder abuse as they fear a breakdown in family relationships or don’t want to expose the misbehaviour of family members.

Solution: Clients should appoint at least two EPoAs who must make joint decisions - ensuring decisions will only be made in the client’s interest.
SCENARIO TWO: Broke boomerang children

With property prices and rents increasing, children are sometimes forced to move back in with their parents – referred to as boomerang children. In some of these cases, the parents agree to either gift some, or all, of their property in return for care and a right to remain living in the property until they die. These types of arrangements are often called ‘family agreements’. This situation can cause problems when the boomerang child uses the property as security for a loan and are then unable to repay the loan, leading to the sale of the property. Alternatively, a new relationship between the child and a partner can cause the family dynamic to alter, at which point the parents desire a return to how things were before. This is often impossible because the new partner will also have certain rights. This can cause considerable distress and relationship breakdowns and in some cases the elderly parents have felt forced to move out and rent.

Solution: Any family agreements need to be checked by a lawyer to ensure they are properly drafted and that all parties are clear as to their rights and obligations.

An EPoA is not infallible

Those guilty of elder abuse can often hold an EPoA because they are trusted by the victims – so simply having one does not guarantee your client won’t become a victim. The main perpetrators of elder abuse are children or step-children2 and interestingly, women, rather than men, are more likely to be guilty. This may be because women often shoulder more of the responsibility of caring for their elderly parents and are more likely to be in a position that enables abuse to occur. Having independent EPoAs does go some way to reducing this risk.

Talk to your clients about including certain conditions in their EpoA to reduce the possibility of elder abuse

As an adviser, you can suggest to you client that the person they choose to appoint as their EPoAs be bound to act only in accordance with defined terms and arrangements. This could include conditions that make it impossible to transfer properties.

While it will not always be possible to detect when your clients are victims of elder abuse, being aware of the signs and what techniques to use to minimise its impact allows you to help your clients if they unfortunately become victims.

What should you do next?

If you have any concerns in relation to your clients’ being victims of elder abuse, you can use the myagedcare.gov.au website to find contact details for services in the different states and territories.

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1  Source: WA Department of Justice submission. Page 4.
2  Source: 'National Elder Abuse Annual Report 2015 -2016', Advocare Incorporated, WA.