Joan was doing the right thing when she elected her daughter as her power of attorney; she was organising her affairs and putting in place the safeguards that would theoretically protect her wishes as she aged and when she eventually passed.
But like thousands of other Australians, Joan became a victim of elder abuse when she was taken advantage of by the person she trusted most. When Joan became incapable of decision making later in life, her daughter began siphoning funds to pay for her children’s school fees, draining Joan’s accounts of the money she had saved over her lifetime.
Sadly, stories like Joan’s are all too common.
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies’ 2018 Elder Abuse report, financial elder abuse is now the most common form of elder abuse, and it’s most often the victim’s friends and family taking advantage of their vulnerability.
Evidence about the prevalence of elder abuse in Australia is lacking, though if international indications provide any guidance, it is likely that between 2 per cent and 14 per cent of older Australians experience elder abuse in any given year, while the prevalence of neglect is possibly higher.
Elder abuse is often hard to identify because it’s done under the guise of caring for or protecting the person and due to the nature of the close relationship, it becomes very difficult to recognise.
Public Trustee of Queensland and CEO Samay Zhouand says there are several factors that can make someone more vulnerable to elder abuse, including diminished mental or physical capacity, social isolation, a lack of awareness around rights and entitlements, or family members with drug or alcohol problems.
“One of the main reasons, based on the data we have, is that sometimes family members have a strong sense of entitlement to an older person’s property or possessions,” he said.
“[We hear] things like ‘Mum wanted us to have the money,’ or ‘Dad doesn’t need the money and we do’, or ‘the money isn’t doing them any good in the nursing home, and we have a mortgage to pay’.”
Knowing how to spot the signs of elder abuse is also important. Be mindful of elderly relatives or friends who are showing signs of physical abuse or anxiety, or have started deferring to another person to speak on their behalf or manage their finances when they hadn’t previously struggled to do so themselves.
Stories like Joan’s are all too common, but can be prevented with the right legal safeguards in place. Including a ‘nominated person’ on your power of attorney document is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself and your estate, as any decisions made by your power of attorney need to be shown to your nominated person before they’re actioned.
If Joan had of listed her son, who was living overseas when she made her daughter her power of attorney, as a nominated person on her attorney document, her daughter never would have been able take a cent from her without her brother knowing.
“safeguard” in the form of an additional nominated person or an accountability clause. He said if Joan had had this in place, her son would have had been informed at regular intervals as to his mother’s financial affairs and he would have been able to raise the matter with Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT), while an additional safeguard in Helen’s case may have identified the fraud sooner.
“Even though it might be the person’s daughter, it’s important to have someone else, another sibling, another family member nominated so there are checks and balances, so that as a whole system we are ensuring the protection of our senior citizens is at the forefront,” Zhouand said.
With Australia’s ageing population growing every year, the prevalence of elder abuse is expected to get worse before it gets better. Zhouand said having the confidence to contact the authorities when you think you’re seeing the signs of elder abuse, and ensuring we have the legal safeguards in place to protect ourselves, is the only way to fight the issue.
“We all have a moral obligation to ensure that our older Australians are protected and supported,” he said.
“Fundamentally we are dealing with the most important people in our community, our senior citizens, and we need to support them as much as possible. It should be a priority for all of us.”
If you or someone you know may be experiencing elder abuse, call the Elder Abuse Helpline on 1800 811 811.
* Name has been changed to protect the victim’s identities.
Q: Can I appoint a solicitor as my power of attorney?
A: Yes. You’ll have to pay them, whereas having a friend or family member do it is free, but having a solicitor acting in your best interest works well for anyone nervous about putting family or friends in charge of their wellbeing and/or finances.
Q: What should I do if I think an elderly person I know is being abused?
A: Ask them privately if they’re okay. Tell them you’re here to help them, and call the Elder Abuse Hotline if you’re concerned for their wellbeing.
Q: How can I protect my myself against elder abuse?
A: Ensure you will is up to date and your finances in order. Have a solicitor draw up a power of attorney document for you and include a nominated person to hold the attorney accountable.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your financial or legal situation, objectives or needs. That means it’s not financial product or legal advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a financial or legal decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get independent, licensed financial services or legal advice.