Why does financial elder abuse occur?
Consistent with the complex nature of financial elder abuse (FEA), there are a range of explanations and it is impossible to put a finger on a single cause. Elder abuse of all types has been associated with older people’s relatively low status in society and lack of economic power, making them more vulnerable, especially in the case of older women. Many people who abuse simply do not recognise that older people are entitled to control their own money and assets and to use them as they think fit.
Cultural differences may influence whether FEA occurs or is recognised, for example whether a child should return money borrowed from a parent. A study in Australia compared the views of English speakers, the Greek and the Vietnamese communities. They differed in their views on how important self-reliance and independence should be for older people. In some cultures the family unit is given a higher value than the individual; how assets are allocated is a family matter. The researchers concluded: "What in some cultures is a reflection of tradition and established practice in others is deemed to be financial abuse."
In another view, FEA is seen as an opportunistic crime, to explain why it occurs in families and care-giving situations, in the context of everyday activities. It is common for families to manage older people’s financial affairs, from everyday shopping to substantial investments. This provides the opportunity and the temptation. Added to these opportunities can be a sense of entitlement. Family members may think that, as they will or should inherit an asset eventually, they might as well get the benefit sooner rather than later. This is aptly called ‘inheritance impatience’. Family members may try to protect "their" inheritance by not incurring expenses even though they are necessary for the health and well-being of the older person. This might mean keeping them at home rather than using residential care or avoiding expensive medical treatment.
As well as entitlement to inheritance, family abusers may feel that they should be paid back for care giving. There may even be an element of "settling old scores". Family members who have been abused in the past by people who are now vulnerable themselves may take advantage of this. There may be an element of blackmail. In a New Zealand Families Commission report there are examples where older people were threatened with not seeing their grandchildren if they did not provide money or property. In other cases, companionship or assistance may be withheld.
Financial abuse may be triggered by the abusers’ own problems, such as financial or social stress, gambling problems, drug and alcohol abuse. Older people’s money may be seen as an easy "fix", with little chance of being caught. Sometimes the abusers may simply not understand their obligations. For example, under a Power of Attorney they are required to act in the best interests of the donor (older person) and not for personal benefit; and they must keep the donor’s funds and property separate from their own.
Finally, many would suggest that the motive is simply greed. Another example from the Families Commission report, concerning an 80 year-old woman:
It was just greed. I had been giving her $50 each week for a lot of years and then when I came in here [residential care] she took everything. She robbed me of my money and sold all my possessions.
Next – what do we know about financial elder abuse?
Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate
Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington