Financial abuse, along with, and often combined with, psychological abuse is probably the most common form of elder abuse. In New Zealand it is estimated that approximately half of all elder abuse cases involved financial abuse.
What is it and why does it matter?
The World Health Organisation defines financial elder abuse (FEA) as:
The illegal or improper exploitation or use of funds or resources of the older person.
This sits within the generally accepted definition of elder abuse, which is:
Any act or omission that results in harm to an older person which occurs in a relationship where there is an implication of trust.
Financial abuse may be without the older person’s consent or if consent is given, it may be under pressure. Threats may be made such as, “If you don’t give us what we want you won’t see the grandchildren.” Other examples include demanding the PIN number of bank cards; family/whanau members ‘living off’ the older person (often moving in and taking over), manipulation of the sale of property to disadvantage the older person. Sometimes family member convince themselves that as they may inherit from you in the future, that they are entitled to your money or assets now. They are not.
Why is it such a problem?
Financial elder abuse may lead to a permanent loss of financial security and may even be life-threatening for older people. It has been linked to depression, psychological harm and declining physical health. It can also result in higher levels of dependence and an increased need for care services. Financial abuse may cause older people to become more fearful, and unable to trust others. They may lose faith in all their family members or service providers, even if this is unwarranted. Financial abuse threatens the dignity and human rights of our elders.
Older people usually don’t have the ability or opportunity to recoup the income and assets they have lost through FEA. The services which might allow victims to reduce their risk and recover assets, for example in the form of restitution advocacy, legal assistance and crisis counselling, are not well developed. Recognition of financial abuse is a comparatively “new” issue, but it is hard to ignore its importance.
Why does financial elder abuse occur?
Because financial abuse is so complex, it is impossible to identify 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 also influence whether financial abuse occurs or is recognised, for example whether a child should return money borrowed from a parent. In some cultures the family unit is given a higher value than the individual; how assets are allocated is a family matter. Studies have found that what in some cultures is a reflection of tradition and established practice in others is deemed to be financial abuse.
Another view is that financial abuse is seen as an opportunistic crime. This aims at trying to explain why it occurs in families and care-giving situations. Families who manage older people’s financial affairs may develop a sense of entitlement. Family members may think that they will, or should inherit assets eventually, so may as well get the benefits sooner rather than later. Family members also 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.
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.
What to do if you, or someone you know is a victim of Financial Abuse?
A new Elder Abuse Response Service (EARS) set up on 1 July 2017 is a confidential 24 hour free helpline phone: 0800 32 668 65. Registered nurses will listen and advise anyone (no matter who it is) who needs information or support about elder abuse. If needed, callers will be referred to local elder abuse services to get help. If there is immediate danger call the police on 111.