Many lawyers I have spoken with as age discrimination commissioner have noticed an increase in demand for wills, advanced care directives and enduring documents during the pandemic. This includes documents known in most Australian states and territories as ‘enduring powers of attorney’, which allow you to appoint a person to make financial decisions on your behalf, even if you have lost the ability to make these decisions for yourself.
I encourage people of all ages to have their enduring powers of attorney in place and to keep them up to date. If you haven’t done this and you lose decision-making capacity, someone may end up making decisions about your finances and property that are not what you would have wanted.
It is vital that you and your appointed decision-maker properly understand your respective rights and responsibilities. It is also essential that any enduring document you sign reflects your wishes and not the wishes of anyone else around you.
While enduring documents are powerful tools for safeguarding your rights and interests as you age, they can also be misused and become instruments for abuse.
Based on available data from the World Health Organization, it is likely that up to 14 per cent of older Australians experience elder abuse in any given year. Financial abuse is the most commonly reported type of abuse and an August 2020 study of call data to a Victorian elder abuse helpline found that two-thirds of cases were perpetrated by a son or daughter – who are also the people most commonly appointed to act as attorney.
In one case, reported by the NSW Ageing and Disability Commission, a daughter had arranged an enduring power of attorney for her mother who had dementia. The daughter then cancelled her mother’s home care services and diverted her mother’s pension into a separate account with no money being provided for her mother’s care and expenses. The daughter also verbally abused her stepfather, forcing him to go to the shed for the duration of her visits.
Unfortunately, stories like these are not uncommon. It is therefore critical that you think carefully about who you appoint in your power of attorney and that you understand your rights – including your right to set conditions, modify or revoke your power of attorney. It can be very helpful to get legal advice from a lawyer who has relevant expertise.
Read more: How to choose a power of attorney
Appointed decision-makers also need a clear understanding of their responsibilities, including their duty to act in your best interests, keep your money and property separate from their own and maintain good records. Elder abuse sometimes happens almost inadvertently because an appointed decision-maker was not aware of their obligations or did not clearly understand them.
For information, support or referrals about elder abuse, contact 1800ELDERHelp (1800 353 374), a national free call line that automatically directs callers to their state or territory phone line service. Other helpful resources available include the Australian Guardianship and Administration Council publication You Decide Who Decides and Compass, Australia’s first national information hub and service directory on elder abuse.
The importance of planning ahead and knowing your rights cannot be overstated. I encourage all Australians to take the necessary steps to plan for the future and safeguard your will, rights and preferences.
It is your right to live free from elder abuse.
If you experience, witness or suspect elder abuse, you can call the National Elder Abuse phone line on 1800ELDERHelp (1800 353 374) for free confidential information, support and referrals. In an emergency or life-threatening situation, call triple zero (000).
Have you done your research and appointed a power of attorney?
Dr Kay Patterson AO is Australia’s age discrimination commissioner.
Read more: Our tireless advocate on ageing
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