Research confirms that as many as 50,000 elderly people in New South Wales alone may have experienced some form of abuse from relatives, neighbours, friends or carers. Wills & Estates Partner Angela Harry discusses this very important topic about elder abuse.
The Sad Statistics of Elder Abuse:
An examination of calls made to the NSW Elder Abuse Helpline has revealed that in excess of 50,000 elderly people may have experienced some form of abuse in recent times. It is further estimated that only 1 in 5 of cases of elder abuse are reported to the appropriate authorities. Sadly, the majority of the abusers of elderly people are trusted family members, neighbours, friends or paid carers.
The Helpline statistics found that 30% of the complaints related to financial abuse while more than 300 people reported psychological abuse and physical threats. The calls also showed that women aged between 75-84 years were most at risk of abuse with their children aged between 45-64 being identified as primarily responsible for neglect and other forms of abuse.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, as many as 50,000 people over 65 years have experienced some form of abuse or neglect in NSW alone.
It is likely that the figures are very similar in Queensland and other States of Australia. It is a serious social issue which cannot be ignored by families and those professionals involved in the aged health care industry.
What is Elder Abuse?
Elder abuse takes many forms and is predominantly any abuse of a relationship with an elderly person or persons. The definition utilised by many elder abuse prevention units is as follows:-
“Elder abuse is a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person”.
As you can imagine abuse can occur in all manner circumstances but some of the most common are as follows:-
- Financial abuse – unlawfully using an Enduring Power of Attorney or illegal/unauthorised use of a person’s bank eftpos card or making threats to an elderly person to extort money from them;
- Intimidation and psychological abuse – taking advantage of an elderly person’s frail personality and forcing them to live in circumstances that they do not wish to, including the use of threats and other behaviour designed to have the elderly person do things against their will;
- Failing to properly care for elderly people in circumstances where they require assistance with basic living, dietary requirements and helping with the basics of living (this is separate to the issue of elderly people refusing to accept help);
- Physical abuse – there have been cases of trusted family members physically assaulting elderly persons in order to extract money from them and/or to continue living arrangements against their will (eg. adult children living with their elderly parent or grandparent and frequently assaulting and abusing them in order to continue using the elderly person for free rental and financial gain);
- Falsely taking advantage of an elderly person’s trust in order to have them change their Will so they leave some or all of their estate to them instead of their family or a preferred charity.
These are just some of the issues affecting our elderly people and families and are probably just the tip of the iceberg.
Where to Get Help?
Most States have an Elder Abuse Helpline or Unit that has been specifically set up to deal with elder abuse enquiries. The Units for Queensland and New South Wales are as follows:-
Queensland Elder Abuse Prevention Unit
1300 651 192
New South Wales Elder Abuse Helpline
1800 628 221
For any urgent physical threats, elderly people can dial emergency 000 or their local Police Station to report any problems. Sometimes just getting the right advice from people who know what to do in these circumstances can put the abused elderly person on the right track. Many of them become so paralysed with fear and uncertainty that they simply give up and believe that they just must continue with the circumstances in which they find themselves. Many of them do not wish to report their own family members to the authorities or the Police for fear of repercussions and loyalty to their relatives. However, elderly people should understand that there is always a better option available to them and that no-one should suffer this type of abuse, no matter what their circumstances are.
Legal Options available to Elderly People
Another option available to all elderly people is to obtain proper legal advice in relation to their rights with respect to abuse by relatives or trusted family members who they have appointed as attorneys or guardians.
You should ensure that you obtain appropriate legal advice from lawyers who are experienced in this area and have knowledge of health authorities and other Government instrumentalities that can assist elderly people who are in this position. Quite often the abusive family members or friends who hold powers of attorney on behalf of the elderly people use these legal documents to continue the abuse and attempt to hide behind what they maintain is the mental incapacity of the elderly person. As lawyers experienced in this area, we often come across this situation where we are contacted by a long standing client about possible financial mis-use of a Power of Attorney, only to find that the relative has a carefully crafted story and blames the mental incapacity of their elderly parent or grandparent. It is sometimes difficult with the Privacy Laws for other family members or health professionals to intervene where there are definite signs of abuse.
Lawyers experienced in this area can assist elderly people to work through these issues and obtain the assistance that they require. Sometimes this means that an application will need to be made to the appropriate Tribunal (QCAT in Queensland and NCAT in New South Wales) for an order appointing alternative financial managers and/or guardians for an elderly person’s affairs. In some cases the Queensland Public Trust Office or NSW Trustee & Guardian may also have to be approached to be appointed to handle someone’s affairs if there are no suitable family members or friends that are prepared to act as financial managers or guardians.
Parents and grandparents can plan in advance and make sure that whoever they appoint as their attorneys and guardians are truly trusted members and you should always appoint at least two trusted people to handle your affairs and make sure that it is a joint appointment. This way it is unlikely that the two people that you have appointed would both collude to abuse the appointment as attorney or guardian (if you are concerned about this, then you should appoint an independent professional such as lawyer or accountant to accompany the trusted family member). This will ensure that your affairs are handled properly, even after you have lost capacity or are simply unable to handle your affairs due to illness or injury. Make sure you obtain advice from lawyers who specialise in this complex area. It is usually beyond the local small firm who do conveyancing.
If you are a victim of elder abuse, do not hesitate to contact the relevant Helpline in your State or Territory. If the abuse is imminent and physical, please ring your local Police or dial 000. You should also confide in your treating General Practitioner or visiting Health Professionals and they will make sure that the appropriate persons are notified and that help can be provided to you. Another alternative is to contact your lawyers and have them review your Enduring Power of Attorney and Enduring Guardian. These are very important documents that everyone should regularly review and make sure that their affairs are going to be handled independently and with your best interests in mind.
This simple attention to your legal documents could save you and your family a lot of stress, anxiety and financial loss.
If you have any queries in relation to this issue or to your Estate Planning generally, please do not hesitate to contact our Wills & Estates Department Manager, Donna Tolley on free call 1800 621 071 or direct line 07 5506 8241 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We offer a free 30 minute initial consultation (in person or by telephone) for any enquiries in most cases.