ELDER ABUSE SPECIAL INVESTIGATION:
Elderly Australians are being neglected and abused by those who are closest to them. Susan Chenery inds that the inancial abuse of older Australians very often begins at home.
at risk from those closest to them
Janet Mackozdi, 77, died of hypothermia in a shipping container at Mount Lloyd, Tasmania in 2010. With dementia and in deteriorating health, she had been in the care of her daughter, Jassy Anglin, a nurse, and son-in-law, Michael Anglin, a disability support worker. A court would nd that the couple had rejected outside offers of medical help, isolated her from her GP and refused offers of a place in a nursing home, leaving her unable to get help, and told her bank not to inquire into her nances. The court found they had spent threequarters of her money, including selling her at. Had Janet received the proper care, the court found, she could have had “plenty of life in front of her”.
This was, said Council on the Ageing Tasmania Chief Executive Sue Leitch, “a classic case of elder abuse”.
“The major type of elder abuse is nancial,” says Brisbane solicitor
Brian Herd, who specialises in elder law. “The reality is that most of it is undetected and it is massive. It is so easy: you get the password and you are in.”
Brian believes that nancial abuse of the elderly is motivated by two primary factors: greed and control. “They go together. It is dif cult to abuse an older person unless you control their nances. You need to have them under your control, isolating them, keeping them out of contact with the outside world. In the anonymity of the internet, it is very dif cult to identify it.”
When Richard Waters’ [not his real name] daughter was married, it was decided that she would live in his house and the newlyweds would build a granny at out the back for Richard. Because it is dif cult for an older person to borrow money, he transferred the house into the children’s name so they could borrow to build the at. But when Richard began to show signs of dementia, becoming a bit erratic, they kicked him out. “They said, ‘You can’t come here; we don’t want you around the children.’ The house was in their name, he had no rights whatsoever,” says Suzanne Hopman, co-founder of the homeless charity, Dignity.
Sadly, this is an all too common story. Suzanne says she sees around
ve cases a week where elderly people have become homeless because of nancial abuse.
The granny at, says Brian, is in theory a good idea. But once assets are transferred to a child, problems can occur. A parent can end up with no rights and no home. “It is usually an oral arrangement which is not documented. Mum or Dad’s asset was meant to be compensation for caring for them. But they are honeypots for children. People don’t think about the complexities of sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, marriage break-ups, divorce. It can end up in expensive legal proceedings when there is a need to pay for aged care and the money is tied up in the house.”
Brian says that, to avoid misplaced trust, any transferring of assets should involve legal documents. “Signed documents endorsed by the other children. Often the other children don’t nd out the money is gone until the parent has died.”
Financial abuse is often hidden, under-reported and insidious. It comes from the people the elderly love and trust the most – their own children and relatives, the people who are supposed to care for them. But behind closed doors, there is a grabbing of assets.
Brian says most of his cases come from “whistle-blowers” or aged care facilities where the bills are no longer being paid because the money is gone.
“People are putting their parents into a home to get access to their nances or their property,” says
Jan Barham, a former NSW Greens spokesperson on ageing. “With inheritance anticipation and people being kept alive longer with medical improvements, you have the most amazing array of circumstances where things can go wrong.”
Research shows that women over the age of 80 are at the greatest risk of nancial abuse, and that adult sons are the most common perpetrators – 63 per cent of perpetrators of elder abuse are sons and daughters. Very often these are people who can’t get into the property market but whose elderly parent is sitting on several hundred thousand dollars in real estate.
In 2013-14, the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit found a total of
$56.7 million was misappropriated from 139 elder abuse victims. “We know that is increasing,” says Age Discrimination Commissioner Kay Patterson, “because the hotlines reported a doubling [in calls] in the last year. I can’t tell you how bad it is.”
In old age, people are at their most vulnerable. Many have a diminished sense of self-con dence or feel that they no longer have a voice. Those who are isolated or dependent, perhaps because of physical disability or dementia, are at the greatest risk. They might sign over their house or go guarantor on a loan without realising the implications of that. Suddenly they nd the house is not theirs or is mortgaged to the hilt,
“People are putting their parents into a home to access their nances.”
there have been no repayments and they have to leave.
“We see it every day – people losing control of their nances just as they are becoming more frail in their health,” says Brendan French, Group Customer Advocate at the Commonwealth Bank.
Christine Mattey, Senior Consultant at the NSW Elder Abuse Helpline and Resource Unit, says “a lot of [elderly] people do it willingly – give money to their children assuming they will have a house for the rest of their lives on a handshake, rather than having things in writing.” Or they will give a loan and then realise it is not going to be repaid. And while most people have a duty of care to their parents and don’t exploit them when they become frail, or see them as an unearned pay day, others have a sense of entitlement – the attitude of, ‘it’s going to be my money one day anyway’.
“There are the threats,” says Christine, “of losing relationships, of ‘you won’t see me or the grandchildren’. People want to maintain relationships with their grandchildren particularly ... The psychological abuse that enables the nancial abuse can be powerful. It is about coercion. The older person becomes a cash cow and there is no excuse to do that to somebody.”
Often, elderly people stay silent because there is a sense of shame attached to the abuse. “They don’t want the courts to be involved,” says Dr Patterson. “So people under-report it. They feel like it is their fault. ‘What have I done that my children are doing this to me?’” Others simply don’t know where to report it or how to get help.
“And there is that sense of parental responsibility,” adds Christine, “the sense that ‘I am going to look after my child even if it means enormous sacri ce and loss’.”
In submissions to the NSW Law Reform inquiry into elder abuse, one woman spoke of her blind mother, who had lung cancer. She had stopped eating and was going to bed by 5pm to save on heating and food costs so that she could give the money to her bullying son.
In another submission made to the NSW parliamentary inquiry into elder abuse, a 66-year-old woman, who was managing her schizophrenia with help from her GP, was taken from her home in Canberra to live with her daughter in Queensland. Her daughter took her mobile phone from her, used her bank accounts ve or six times a day, maxed out her credit cards and bank accounts on restaurants, clothes, overseas holidays and cruises, while leaving her mother locked in the house. When the money ran out, her daughter took out loans in her name for which she is now liable.
Brian Herd says that “isolation is the biggest tactic of the abuser: putting Mum and Dad in a prison and not allowing other people to have access to them, or controlling that access. When you start seeing isolation and restriction to other people, you have ask what is going on.”
Other family members, friends, neighbours, community carers, doctors, lawyers and nancial services professionals need to be aware of the warning signs. The signs to look for are that the person does not have the ready access to money that they once did; is having dif culty paying bills; is not eating or being adequately nourished. There might also be unexplained disappearances of possessions; signi cant bank withdrawals; unusual activity on credit cards; changes to a will; social isolation (not opening the door to people or answering the phone). The blocking of visitors is a red ag that can indicate abuse in many situations.
“People sometimes take years to come to terms with the idea that their esh and blood, their baby who they have inculcated with all their own values, is actually doing them harm now,” says Greg Mahney, former CEO of Advocare. Many older people hand over ATM cards because they’re having trouble getting to the shops or the chemist for medication – they trustingly give out pin numbers.
“Many people do the right thing but some people will take out $100 for the older person and $500 for themselves. It can be relatively small amounts but we also see a number of cases each year where people have sold Mum and Dad’s house. We have seen lots of cases like that,” he adds.
If one person has been given Enduring Power of Attorney, others
can nd themselves powerless to intervene. “The Enduring Power of Attorney appoints members of the family to make decisions for someone if they lose capacity,” says Brian.
“The law doesn’t really have any accountability of the Power of Attorney. It imposes responsibilities and duties on them but there is no mechanism to ensure that they are complying with their responsibilities, unless someone blows the whistle.”
One woman reported that, after her 93-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s had signed Power of Attorney to her solicitor brother, $3 million vanished. Her mother was named on boards of companies, she was evicted from her house after it was sold, and then ousted from a care home because the bills were not paid.
Brian advises older people to give Enduring Power of Attorney to more than one person to reduce the risk, and Dr Patterson advises that people understand what rights they have in terms of the Power of Attorney and know that they can revoke it.
Christine Mattey says families should have conversations around care and Power of Attorney as early as possible, while the parent is not yet incapacitated. She also stresses that the elder person should be open and honest, “transparent about their wishes, so that everyone is clear about what that person wants”. And when the older person has lost the capacity to understand, they should still be considered in the making of all decisions. It is important that the person with the responsibility for the elderly person’s life understands what they would want if they were able to choose for themselves.
Attitudes to older people need to change and access to information needs to improve if we’re to reverse the increasing nancial abuse of older Australians.
Elder abuse, says Dr Patterson, “is everybody’s business. There needs to be a sense of see something, say something.” We shouldn’t ‘turn a blind eye’ to a neighbour who is suddenly receiving fewer visitors or a customer who is having trouble with bills or buying less food.
She knows of an elderly man whose wife had died, he had no children and was living alone in his house. Someone saw a ‘For Sale’ sign up and rang community police.
“His neighbour had put a stile across the fence to get in and help him, but they had also helped themselves to everything he had, plus his Power of Attorney. When the police arrived, he was emaciated and dehydrated, and died ve days later.”
“Older people”, says Dr Patterson, “have the right to self-determination. Stereotypes and lazy assumptions must not be allowed to diminish older people’s rights to exercise their autonomy and have their choices respected. That is a basic human right and it is non-negotiable.”
Jassy Anglin and Michael Anglin (right) were found guilty in 2015 of the manslaughter of Mrs Anglin’s mother Janet, who died of hypothermia after spending a night in a shipping container on their property (above).