In a cruel twist of fate, family fortunes, earned through graft and sacrifice, are being whittled away by warring children and scheming hangers-on.
Separate inquiries by the NSW government and the Australian Law Reform Commission on elder abuse are shining a light on families twisted by greed, and the bleak existence faced by vulnerable older people being fleeced by people they trust.
A woman who suspected her brother of financially and emotionally abusing their mother wrote to the NSW inquiry stating, “my brother was burdening my mother daily with his problems to the point that it consumed her day.
“She stopped eating as it was too expensive, stopped her pensioner bus trips on Wednesday as they were too expensive, and went to bed by 5pm without dinner to save on heating and food. All so she could give him her money.”
The woman, whose name has been suppressed, continued with a complicated story of guardianship proceedings, contested powers of attorney, her mother’s dwindling bank balance and a broken family.
“I was accused by my sister and my daughter of trying to kill my mother,” she writes.
Family squabbling over money might be considered a private affair, but when an older person at the centre of the brouhaha suffers harm, the drama is most definitely a form of elder abuse.
The World Health Organisation defines elder abuse as “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”.
While the abuse can also be physical, psychological or sexual, the most common form reported to Queensland’s Elder Abuse Prevention Unit (EAPU) is financial abuse.
Les Jackson, coordinator of EAPU and nationally recognised authority on the subject, says their telephone hotline is experiencing “a bumper year”. He estimates they will exceed last year’s call numbers (1282) by 50 per cent.
Elder abuse is often seen as a symptom of carer stress.
“But it’s not carer stress at all,” Les says. “Carers do a great job.”
Instead, the cases show an increasing pattern of people moving back into the family home to collect the federal government’s carer payment and then failing to provide any care.
These “freeloaders” don’t pay board or contribute anything towards electricity or other bills. They often stop outside service providers such as cleaners from coming in “because that costs money”.
These so-called carers are “skimming the pension. They’re getting free board and lodging; they’re getting the whole lot,” Les says. “They’re on easy street.”
The data collected by EAPU is patchy, with figures on income source for only half of the perpetrators on record.
Although limited, the numbers are alarming.
Of those who declared a government carer’s payment as their only income, nearly 18 per cent provided no care at all to the victim.
Les says reforms to aged care funding may have unwittingly contributed to the problem, with the family home now being part of the refundable deposit for nursing home fees and an expectation of “user pays” if the older person has sufficient assets.
“If mum ever does get to the stage where she does need nursing home care, they tend to be pulling them out of the aged care system because otherwise the house gets sold and where are they (family members) going to live?,” he says.
Older people become isolated out of the system and drop off the radar of health providers.
A Queensland coroner noted this anomaly in the Cynthia Thoresen inquest findings. Cynthia, an 88-year-old woman with dementia, died in hospital in 2009 from complications after being admitted with a broken leg. Her malnourished body was contaminated with faeces and urine and developing pressure sores.
Medicare records showed Cynthia hadn’t seen a doctor for more than five years, despite her daughter having received Centrelink benefits to care for her since January 2001.
At the 2013 inquest, ambulance officers and hospital medical staff painted a picture of severe neglect, prompting the coroner to suggest people who received a carer’s benefit should be required to submit an annual independent medical review of the person being cared for.
Two thirds of Queensland elder abuse victims are women. And while some have diminished mental capacity, it’s not a significant factor.
EAPU reports only 17 per cent reported as having, or being suspected as having, dementia.
Val French has been a spokeswoman for older people for many years, with successive federal governments consulting her on issues affecting the demographic, including elder abuse.
She founded Older People Speak Out, an organisation promoting justice for seniors, in 1993.
Val says her generation (she’s 88) is less assertive than people are today, especially the women.
“If you’re an old person it is very, very hard for you to do anything about it (abuse) because you don’t want to lose your family,” Val says. “You don’t want to be on your own for the rest of your life.”
Les Jackson has heard it all.
“There’s all sorts of emotional stuff that happens in families,” he says.
“People use coercion and a bit of emotional blackmail, telling (an older person) they’ll never see their grandchildren again, or they (children) will never visit them again; or ‘I’ll die on the streets if you throw me out, there’s nowhere else to go’.”
It isn’t always a family member who takes advantage of an older person’s trust for their own financial gain.
“We look for a situation where an individual has wormed their way into the older person’s life,” Les says.
“Dad might have a new gardener or a friend from down the club who has moved in and that friend starts isolating the older person from other friends and family and service providers.”
The isolation is actually a form of social abuse and it’s a tactic used so no one else knows what’s going on.
But family members have to tread carefully.
They might become suspicious if their unattached and elderly dad takes up with a younger woman Les says.
“But that’s being going on forever. It all depends on the older person’s capacity. Maybe she is a gold-digging hussy, but maybe he wants a trophy wife to parade around the bowls club,” he says.
“There’s a real sense of entitlement in a number of calls where the younger person says, ‘but that’s my money’.”
What needs to be determined is: what are the older person’s wishes? Are they being controlled?
When an accused cocaine smuggler asked his 81-year-old ex-mother-in-law to sign over her house as security for his bail last year, a Southport magistrate said it was “a potential act of elder abuse”.
The woman would have to perform a citizen’s arrest if her former son-in-law tried to skip bail and the magistrate doubted her affidavit in which she said it would not be “ruinous’’ to lose her home.
“I always thought I’d heard them all,” Les says. “But it never ceases to amaze me some of the things these families do.”
He recounts a typical call to the hotline involving a property dispute.
An older couple bought a family home with their son and his wife “giving them a helping hand because they were having difficulty getting into their first house”.
The property was purchased in the son’s name on the understanding the parents could live there.
The relationship started to break down so they built a flat at the back, which the parents also paid for
Once the flat was built the son announced he was selling the property.
“The father doesn’t have any title and there’s going to have to be a civil court action,” he says.
“This man is desperate. He can’t afford to engage a lawyer and is relying on a community legal service.”
Older people can apply for protection orders under Queensland’s Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012, which are available for non-physical abuse.
But EAPU helpline operators say older victims are reluctant to ask for a protection order against their own child.
“The idea of being alone when you’re old is appalling,” Val French says.
“Most old people need to have the security of people around them who can help them, be there for them. It would be awful to die alone.”
Brisbane is hosting the International Federation on Ageing Global Conference from June 21-23, and the cityh will be bathed in purple light mid-month in recognition of World Elder Abuse day on June 15.
The Australian Law Reform Commission will also release an issues paper on that day, calling for public submissions.
In the meantime, Les Jackson and his team at EAPU are buckling up for another bumper year and Val French continues to despair at a world turned upside down.
“Imagine what it’s like to be an older person and the ones who let you down are the ones you love the best,” she says.
“Older people become isolated and drop off the radar of health care providers”
“EAPU helpline operators say older victims are reluctant to ask for a protection order against their own child”
Advice from the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit
- Never sign anything without getting a legal opinion.
- When getting legal advice, use your own solicitor, not your children’s
- Trust your instincts.
- If you think an older person is being isolated and exploited, call the Elder Abuse Helpline on 1300 651 192 for advice.