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Financial elder abuse on the rise

Increased isolation, loneliness and reliance on those who may be perpetrating financial elder abuse means that older people are at an increased risk during the COVID crisis.

This warning, coinciding with World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, comes from the State Trustees who are bracing for a spike in cases of financial abuse.

VCAT relationship manager Luke Wright says 80 per cent of cases of financial abuse are perpetrated by a son or daughter, and being increasingly isolated and reliant on the abuser increases the risk for older Australians.

“Elder abuse happens in homes and in private,” Mr Wright told YourLifeChoices. “There is also a level of embarrassment associated, so it frequently goes unreported. State Trustees often become involved when there are tangible signs of the abuse, such as when the person being abused starts to accrue debts.”

The fact we have an ageing population, and given it is the wealthiest generation in human history, suggests the incidence of abuse will rise, he says.

“It is forecast that by 2055, 25 per cent of the population will be over 65 years of age. We are living longer lives and, as a result, elder abuse is expected to become an increasing challenge to which society needs to respond,” Mr Wright warned.

Improved safeguards are being sought.

In November 2019, the Council of Attorneys-General asked governments to set baseline minimum standards for powers of attorney and create a mandatory national online register to combat elder financial abuse.

CEO of the Australian Banking Association Anna Bligh said at the time that the register would make it easier to pick up elder financial abuses when they occur.

“A mandatory national online register will help bank staff check to ensure a power of attorney is valid and up to date when a customer comes into a branch to complete transactions on someone else’s behalf,” Ms Bligh said.

State Trustees plays a crucial role in this work.

“The banks are increasingly stepping up to the plate to help prevent financial elder abuse,” Mr Wright said. “This includes an increase in staff training and engagement with peak bodies to help prevent and respond to financial elder abuse.

“People’s spending habits are generally predictable. Significant and out of character withdrawals are often a sign of something untoward. A common ‘irregular’ transaction we might see, would be those happening after 9pm and at a venue that might have poker machines.”

These red flags need to be acted on sooner, before all is lost.

 “State Trustees is often asked to step in after the financial abuse has occurred. We regularly see significant changes in spending habits in an older person as an indicator of when the financial abuse starts.

“There is an opportunity for banks to be more proactive in this space, especially if the older person no longer has capacity and the transactions are being done by a power of attorney.”

Senior Rights Victoria estimates that up to 14 per cent of older Australians may be experiencing neglect, physical or emotional abuse, but that the majority of cases involve financial abuse.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have good data, which is why the Australian Attorney-General’s Department has commissioned the Australian Institute of Family Studies to do a study on the extent of elder abuse in the Australian population aged 65 and over,” Mr Wright said.

“That is why it is so important to empower older people to plan ahead and put in place safeguards to reduce the likelihood of experiencing financial elder abuse. We also need to raise awareness about ageist attitudes and the prevalence of elder abuse.”

The federal government this week announced a $23 million Serious Incident Response Scheme (SIRS), to be rolled out on 1 July 2021.

The scheme aims to protect vulnerable and senior Australians from abuse and neglect in aged care by changing the reporting framework.

Minister for aged care and senior Australians Richard Colbeck said it was an important measure to guarantee transparency and keep our loved ones safe in care.

But his Labor counterpart, Julie Collins, said it had been three years since this scheme was first recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission, following its investigation of elder abuse in Australia.

Under the scheme, residential aged care providers will be required to manage all incidents, with a focus on the safety and wellbeing of residents and reducing preventable incidents from reoccurring.

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission will receive incident reports and has enhanced powers to administer the SIRS, including taking regulatory action where needed.

If you suspect someone is in immediate risk of harm, then you should contact the police. If the abuse is more subtle and you want advice, you can phone 1800 ELDERHelp (1800 353 374). 

Do you know someone you suspect of being a victim of financial elder abuse? Do you believe the incidence of abuse is on the rise?

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