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.”
Last week Wollongong man Toby Di Comun Williams was sentenced to at least a year in jail for using a power of attorney to fleece his father out of $157,000 of his life savings.
Di Comun Williams was appointed in January 2014 when his father, Shane Williams, was debilitated by anxiety, depression and alcoholism. The 27-year-old then opened new accounts and used credit cards in his father’s name to make thousands of dollars of purchases, including a new car and expensive holidays. The court heard Shane Williams now lived with his brother because he was unable to financially support himself.
Elder financial abuse in particular is the illegal or improper use of an older person’s property, finances and other assets without their informed consent or where consent is obtained it is by fraud, manipulation or duress.
The World Health Organisation estimates that one in 10 older people experience abuse each month, with financial abuse prevalence rates estimated at 1 to 9.2 per cent. While Australia does not have firm data on the issue, it is thought that it is a vastly under-reported crime. Often victims are too fearful or embarrassed to report that their own family member is being abusive.
The most common form of elder abuse is financial abuse or exploitation, but psychological abuse is also prevalent and may be the precursor to financial abuse.
Mary Ciantar from the NSW Elder Abuse Helpline and Resource Unit observes: “If someone is coercing a person to sign documents or threatening to place them in residential care, withholding affection and isolating an older person from their family, friends and activities – that [psychological] abuse allows the [financial] abuse to occur.”
Victims are mostly women (72.5 per cent) and perpetrators male (60 per cent).
Almost all alleged perpetrators (92.3 per cent) were related to the older person, with two out of three their son or daughter.
Perpetrators are often middle-aged. Calls to Queensland’s Elder Abuse Prevention Unit in the five years to June 30 2015, found about 40 per cent of the perpetrators were aged between 40 and 54 years.
And the amounts involved can be substantial. In 2013-14, the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit found a total of $56.7 million was misappropriated from 139 elder abuse victims.
It comes in different guises: pension-skimming; using the older person’s bank account or credit card without their consent; denying them access to their money or bank statements.
It can involve a loan that is never paid back or the misuse of a power of attorney. Someone may be coerced into changing their will or other legal documents. It is vitally important that any change to a legal document be reviewed by a specialist in Succession Law (wills and estates). A specialist has the skill to identify elder abuse, prevent it where possible and avoid the loss of thousands of dollars.
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.
If you need help in protecting a loved one from elder abuse, or if you think elder abuse might be taking place, contact us today for your free, 10-minute phone consultation.