Last month we observed World Elder Abuse Day – a day recognised by the United Nations particularly to raise awareness of this important issue. Elder abuse is a global and unfortunately diverse issue ranging from physical and emotional abuse to financial abuse and simple neglect. Worryingly, this serious and widespread problem gets little attention because we rarely notice that it’s happening. That’s because the abusers are often those closest to the victims, with 79 per cent of alleged abusers being family members, and 56 per cent being the children or grandchildren of the victim.
As a trustee company, the issue of financial abuse and protecting our most vulnerable people is of particular importance to us. We are in a pivotal position to detect, and take great care to prevent undue influence, financial exploitation, and elder abuse that’s perpetrated on our clients.
Understanding how elder abuse happens
Many elders rely on trusted friends or family members to help take care of them and to manage their affairs as they get older. As they age and continue to become less able to take care of themselves though, caregivers sometimes begin to take advantage of them.
Where one form of abuse is occurring, others might be present also. Ultimately, about 1 in 10 New Zealanders over 65 fall victim to some form of abuse, and many of these cases are only detected long after the issue arises.
Why financial abuse is so hard to detect
As they lose mobility, it’s common for elderly people to provide their caregiver, particularly family members, with financial information to allow them to make purchases and manage bills on their behalf. At that point, however, there is no one else with access to see irregular or outsized withdrawals, unusual purchases or other changes in spending patterns.
The role of enduring powers of attorney
Others use a more formal arrangement by issuing an enduring power of attorney (EPA). An EPA provides another person legal access to make financial decisions on your behalf. However, this doesn’t mean the attorney (the person empowered by the EPA) can do whatever they like with your money and property. They have a responsibility to act in accordance with the donor’s wishes and in their best interest.
Responsibility is not the same as accountability, however, which is why it’s especially important to consider appointing joint attorneys who can help detect and provide a check against potential abuse, or use a professional institution like Trustees Executors to help manage your financial affairs. As a property attorney we actively work to identify spending irregularities to detect and stop abuse right away.
What to do if you suspect abuse
The elderly tend to have much smaller social circles than younger people, which means that there are far fewer people who might notice and take action if something is wrong. In many cases, the abuser themselves might be the only steady presence in their lives. Because of this, it is best to assume that you are the only one aware of the problem, and to take action accordingly.
If you suspect that an elderly friend, neighbour, or loved one is suffering abuse, it’s critical to call attention to the issue. Please call either the Ministry of Social Development’s Super Seniors elder abuse helpline on 0800 32 668 65 or freephone Age Concern 0800 65 2 105 for free and confidential support.