Handling elder financial abuse

Elder financial abuse is a sinister problem that affects more people than you may think. Thankfully, it is now coming out of the shadows as awareness increases and we can all play our part in fighting against this insidious activity.

The combination of a rapidly expanding elderly population — and a growing dependence on family and other caregivers — creates the potential for situations of elder financial abuse to grow within the community. This makes it essential for all of us to understand what elder financial abuse is and how to identify the warning signs, so that positive action can be taken.

What is elder financial abuse?
Elder financial abuse generally occurs when an elderly person is reliant on trusting the abuser, thereby putting them in a position of power. In many cases, it is the victim’s own children who are the culprits, but it can potentially be any family member or caregiver.

The financial abuse can take many forms. At a basic level, the abuser may simply have access to the victim’s money or belongings, and will brazenly take advantage of this without the victim’s knowledge.

The abuse may also be more subtle, such as the perpetrator using their psychological hold over the victim to coerce them into giving them a loan that will never be paid back. In other cases, the abuser will persuade the elderly person to hand over possessions with the intent of selling them off.

Apart from cashing in directly, elder financial abuse can also include deceiving the victim into adjusting their financial arrangements so that the perpetrator will benefit down the track. For example, they may pressure the elderly person into handing over power of attorney, which results in a loss of control and decision-making over their assets. They could even be bullied into to changing their will at the expense of other deserving relatives.

The elderly can be vulnerable
There are many situational factors that can leave elderly people vulnerable to financial abuse: they may be socially and geographically isolated, or their medical and health situation may result in them being easily confused and fearful, which may make them more susceptible to malicious influence. This can result in them being unable to self-advocate, leaving them open to abusive behaviour.

This sense of powerlessness and confusion also creates a situation which may prevent the victim from reporting abuse or asking for help. This means that abuse can easily go unnoticed, making it all the more important for everyone in the community to be aware of how to identify cases of abuse that may be happening around them — even within their own family.

Warning signs
The most obvious warning sign is if certain blatant irregularities occur, such as cash and jewellery going missing, or credit cards and cheque books disappearing. You may also be alerted by simple things, such as bills left unpaid or an unexplained inability to buy food.

Unexpected changes to a will or a sudden inability to access bank accounts are also red flags. If the elderly person is still competent, handing over management of their finances to another person may need to be questioned. This may take the form of a casual arrangement in which the abuser is given access to bank accounts, or through more formal arrangements, such as giving power or attorney or enduring guardianship.

Abuse may also be detected at a behavioural level, where the person may exhibit signs of being ashamed, depressed, agitated and confused — or may even appear to be irrationally paranoid or excessively fearful. Physical changes such as loss of appetite, a change in sleep patterns, or sudden weight loss can also indicate that the elderly person is under stress, which may be related to financial abuse.

What action should you take?
If you are suspicious that financial abuse is taking place, it is important to act on it. Even if the abused person is physically and mentally able to report the abuse themselves, they may choose not do so for fear of repercussions from the abuser or even the desire to protect the family member who is responsible for the abuse.

They may also have feelings of shame or guilt over their own actions being part of the cause for the abusive relationship, so assuming that the elderly person is willingly compliant may be a dangerous misjudgement.

In some cases, the abused person may not have the mental or physical faculties to do anything themselves, or there may be language barriers that mask the abusive situation. Being alert to the danger of elder financial abuse is therefore essential so that action can be taken.

Knowing what to do if you suspect financial abuse can be tricky, especially if family members are involved. While some abuse is intentionally malicious, in other cases it may be the result of the abuser having personal or mental difficulties of their own, so the solution may require care and sensitivity rather than a rush to direct intervention.

Seeking expert help or a referral to a relevant agency is usually the best place to start. Each state or territory has a helpline that can give you information about abuse, abuse prevention, and useful options for getting help. A list of these state contacts can be found on the government website, My Aged Care. If you have any suspicions at all, consult these contacts to determine the best approach.

Have you experienced a situation of elder financial abuse? Share your story below.

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