The main perpetrators of elder abuse are often the adult children of the ageing person, which means there are more siblings having to deal with a situation in which sibling elder abuse is being committed.
Former journalist Adele Horin writes that when adult siblings have to make decisions about frail, dependent parents the wounds of childhood are easily re-opened. When Mum breaks a hip and can’t walk or Dad’s memory gets too bad to stay at home, siblings are suddenly called upon to re-engage and co-operate. Siblings may genuinely disagree on what’s best for their parents. But ulterior motives – usually around money – and unresolved emotions like guilt and anger towards a sibling or parent can poison the discussions – and lead to sibling elder abuse.
Sibling Elder Abuse – A Case Study
Take the case of 89-year-old Jean. She is the divorced mother of four children. In this fight it was brother and sister versus brother and sister. Jean had moved from daughter Karen’s house to live with son Michael. Daughter Helen had held enduring power of attorney over the mother’s affairs but the mother changed this to give Michael and Karen joint authority.
In a battle before the Guardianship Tribunal of NSW, Helen and another brother, Chris, claimed their mother was being exploited and was powerless to resist Michael’s and Karen’s influence. She had given almost half her savings to Michael to help him stave off creditors.
The tribunal heard independent reports that Jean’s living conditions at Michael’s were unsafe. But it also heard Jean was competent to make her own decisions. If she wanted to give most of her money to debt-encumbered Michael she was free to do so, and the other siblings could only watch.
Sometimes this kind of scenario plays out where the elderly parent has lost mental capacity, but an adult child is stealing assets or using assets inappropriately. This is where sibling elder abuse happens.
The Motivation Behind Sibling Elder Abuse
The parental home, after decades of capital gain in booming property markets, represents money worth fighting over. Many elderly people will have to sell their home – or otherwise find serious money – to enter a nursing home or to downsize. It will usually be the sons and daughters having to decide whether to sell – or hang onto the inheritance intact.
Sibling elder abuse typically trouble erupts when a parent sells their home and moves in with the adult child who offers care for life. The parent transfers a large sum of money to the carer. The money may disappear into the child’s business ventures or reckless spending habits. Under the law the money is presumed to be a gift unless there’s strong evidence to the contrary. If the parents stops giving cash to the carer, and the carer reneges on the bargain, the parent may be evicted with very little financial protection.
Another sibling elder abuse situation involves guilt-ridden or greedy siblings. They have done little for their ageing parent but suddenly try to wrest financial control from the other sibling/s. On the other hand, there’s the case of the free-loader carer; the family no-hoper who had to move back into a parent’s house, or never left. They exercise tyrannical control in the one area of life they have power – the parent’s life and money.
In the case of Kastrounis v Foundouradakis, an 88-year-old grandmother, Erini, had transferred her house before death to her three favourite granddaughters, sisters in their 40s. They reaped almost $180,000 each while Erini’s three children in their 60s were left $10,000 each. “I want to look after the people who have looked after me,” Erini reportedly had told her lawyer. But two of Erini’s children challenged in the Supreme Court of NSW. The granddaughters had to hand over $65,000 and $35,000 to their uncle and aunt respectively.
Why Family Agreements Are So Important
One way to avoid sibling disputes and sibling elder abuse is with Family Agreements. These are legal documents drawn up when parents are still capable. They make transparent informal arrangements, such as parent-to-child loans. They may spell out how a live-in carer can be recompensed in the parent’s lifetime rather than in an unequal will.
Care arrangements for older people through family members can be a great way to maintain family closeness and ensure the care is appropriate in all the circumstances. Sometimes a family member who put themselves out to undertake such care is inappropriately vilified for doing the wrong thing. For the sake of there being no misunderstanding among the family as to the motivation of a family member in caring for an older person and indeed for the older person in choosing to live in one household as opposed to another, it is best for there to be open discussion. We can facilitate that open discussion and document care arrangements. Once again, so that there is no misunderstandings.
How To Prevent Sibling Elder Abuse
If you get the sense that your sibling is taking advantage of an ailing parent, ask that person questions. Stay involved to the extent you can. If you believe there are unusual or suspicious circumstances surrounding an elderly parent, take note of them. One who might otherwise take advantage of an elderly parent might not do so if he or she knows that others are regularly checking on the status of the parent’s care and financial matters.
Talk to Your Parent
The effects of dementia are unquestionably devastating, but, to a point, an ailing parent may still have the capacity to sense when something is wrong. On occasion, talk with your elderly parent outside the presence of the sibling you suspect. If your parent never answers the phone or your sibling refuses to let you inside your parent’s home, continue your efforts to initiate contact.
Look for the Signs of Improper Purchases
Not every purchase that the sibling makes should cause immediate suspicion. But one who has never before had any money suddenly buys a new luxury car, takes an expensive holiday, or engages in other activity that is clearly out of the ordinary, you should inquire. If concerns remain, it may be time to get legal advice.
If you are the carer of an elderly parent and want to make sure you aren’t accused of elder abuse, here are a few tips toward maintaining open communication with siblings:
- Update them frequently.
- If a sibling offers constant criticism but no help, gently but firmly explain that until he or she is willing to share in the responsibilities, you must continue doing the best you can with the tools you have.
- Let your siblings know what you are doing to provide elderly care – tell them everything – the nitty gritty details that they probably aren’t even aware of.
- Be vocal in welcoming advice and help in your elderly parent’s care – this can be financial, legal, or medical.
- Be clear in telling siblings exactly what you would like them to do, or what you need them to do for you.
- Always use “I” and avoid accusations – for example, instead of saying “You never help,” say, “I feel stressed or overwhelmed.”
- Be willing to compromise when you ask for someone’s help.
At Mitchells Solicitors we are experienced in all aspects of elder law, elder abuse and estate planning. It’s important to act early, so contact us today for your free, 10-minute phone consultation.