Protect and respect: how to fight against elder abuse

This article may be an uncomfortable read. You can seek support from Lifeline, call 13 11 44, Beyond Blue call 1300 22 4636 and if you need help, call Triple Zero or Crimestoppers.

Abuse is harmful at any age, but for older Australians, it can be financially and psychologically devastating. This article delves into a deeply uncomfortable and unsettling topic that remains in the shadows, with many victims silently suffering. Margaret McKay explains what must be done if you suspect it's happening to someone you care for, or even yourself.

By Margaret McKay

One harrowing true story of abuse

“Troy was a kind and gentle little boy, always brimming with optimism. He loved reading, never got into skirmishes like other kids,” said Yvonne. “Something changed in him. I’m only on a pension, but he wanted my money and he became physical. Now I fear my son.”

Tony and Maria’s daughter has attempted to blackmail them with stories of alleged abuse.

The police uncovered their daughter’s similar attempts at extortion in her workplace. “I know sexual abuse happens in families, and that’s just horrible for those poor kids,” said Tony, “but it sure as hell didn’t happen in our family, and the police assured us it didn’t happen in her workplace either. But, you know, I walk around my neighbourhood now, wondering if even just one person might half-believe the stories she told, and I feel sort of ashamed.”

And there’s Barry, whose daughter ran up thousands of dollars in debt in his name to support her drug addiction. It ruined his plumbing business when he couldn’t pay his suppliers.

These shocking stories are at the more extreme end of abuse of parents by their offspring. Usually, financial abuse is delivered with more subtly.

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?

A young Paul McCartney wouldn’t have realised when he wrote those lyrics how relevant they are to the magic number for financial abuse of older Australians, and indeed worldwide. We at Citro know that 64 is the new 44, and despite financial abuse being possible at any age, the Attorney-General has discovered otherwise.

The National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study (NEAPS), commissioned by the Attorney-General’s Department and conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), reports that 2% of people aged 65 and older (about 80,000 people) living in the community reported experiencing financial abuse in the 12 months preceding the survey that was released in December 2021.

On the other hand, the Australian Banking Association describes it as a “far-reaching problem”, which due to under-reporting, they suggest numbers cannot be estimated.

Financial abuse can take several forms including:
• Pressure applied into giving or lending money or property.
• Theft or misuse of money or property.
• Denial of money or property.
• Being forced to change a will or sign documents.
• Being charged excessively for care or services.

Some of the more subtle warning signs of elder financial abuse might include:
• A credit or debit card appears to have been misplaced.
• Excessive expense when a trusted person has done some shopping for you.
• Regular bills or accounts going unpaid when this has been entrusted to others.
• Unexpected bank activity, including unusual withdrawals.
• A new best friend, who is inappropriately interested in personal details.

Several resources exist in Australia that attempt to prevent and respond to financial elder abuse:
National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians
Elder Abuse National Legal Helpline
• Legal Aid offices in each state and territory
Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN)
Banking Code of Practice
Compass – action on elder abuse.

Elder financial abuse, and elder abuse generally, is a multifaceted problem. When the older person is impacted by health issues, frailty, loneliness, or dementia, any defences they may have had to resist unscrupulous criminals are further eroded. Oftentimes, victims give the benefit of the doubt to those they love and trust – there is no intention here to blame those innocent and trusting victims.

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety found that many older Australians living in residential age care or in receipt of aged care services experienced abuse, including neglect. Estimates reported indicate:

• 39.2% of people living in Australian Government-subsidised residential aged care experienced some form of elder abuse
• 30.8% experienced neglect
• 13.3% experienced emotional or psychological abuse
• 4.6% experienced physical abuse
• 1.5% experienced sexual abuse

What can be done about elder abuse?

Regardless of age, everybody has a multitude of passwords and PIN numbers required to conduct their lives. Security of this information is vital. Never write a PIN on the actual credit or debit card.

Power of Attorney and possibly Enduring Guardianship arrangements should be put in place while you have the ability to do so, with activation when required. The person you choose should be selected with care, and could be a trusted family member, a close friend or lawyer.

Unusual or suspicious financial behaviour should always be investigated, and if suspicious, it should be reported. Obtaining financial advantage by force, deception or coercion is a crime.

Elder abuse support services

The Family Law, Family Violence & Elder Abuse team  
Australian Institute of Family Studies  
Level 4, 40 City Road  
Southbank VIC 3006  

Assisted contact: If you have a hearing or speech impairment, contact us through the National Relay Service:

  • TTY users phone 133 677 then ask for (03) 9214 7888
  • Speak and Listen users phone 1300 555 727 then ask for (03) 9214 7888

If you do not speak English, or English is your second language, and you need assistance to communicate with us, call the Translating and Interpreting Service on 131 450 then ask for 9214 7888.

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