COVID-19 has created an uncertain economic climate for all Australians, and could be leading to a crisis in elder abuse that won’t be fully understood for years to come. Advocates for the older generation are raising concerns about the risk of exploitation, as job losses and financial pressures result in older Australians being taken advantage of by their younger family members.

Russell Westacott, Chief Executive of Senior Rights Service, notes that ‘the most typical form of elder abuse is financial abuse’. ‘Most elder abuse happens within families,’ he says. ‘Adult children or grandchildren taking advantage of the older person to get money from them.’

Professor Briony Dow, director of the National Ageing Research Institute at the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health, agreed that 91% of elder abuse was carried out by a family member, usually a son or daughter.

Mr Westacott says that the legal services arm of his organisation has received around 80 calls in the past few months from members of the community. ‘They’re making enquiries about their legal rights, particularly around family situations’ he says.

As people lose financial stability, they may turn to the older people in their lives, offering support such as moving in to help around the house or manage the older person’s finances. In other situations, family members may encourage older people to sell their own homes and move in with them, and thereafter take control of their pension. 

In the worst cases, it can lead to the older person facing homelessness. 

‘A really typical scenario is “mum why don’t you move into the spare room downstairs, and we will sell your house, put that towards the mortgage on our house. And when your pension comes in, we’ll look after you in terms of food and utilities bills”,’ Mr Westacott says. ‘And then suddenly the relationship might go sour and the older person gets kicked out of the room downstairs. And nothing has been written down about who left money or what money was being used for what purpose’. 

These sorts of verbal agreements can be dangerous, as older people have limited recourse later on. It is incredibly difficult to intervene and try to assist in cases of elder financial abuse, when there aren’t any obvious signs of mistreatment. 

During the pandemic, older people may be particularly vulnerable, as health fears keep them from socialising and trap them with the perpetrator of their abuse. 

The full extent of the problem will begin to be better known in the months ahead, when restrictions are eased. ‘Our organisation thinks that we will get more inquiries in the months or perhaps even years ahead,’ Mr Westacott says. ‘Because during the lockdown people have been in close proximity to the perpetrator and therefore they don’t want to make a call to an organisation like ours.’

But he also noted that the problem could continue to get worse as the pandemic and resulting recession continues. ‘The crisis is still unfolding – more and more people are either losing their jobs or finding themselves in a difficult financial situation, more people will start leaning on their older parents. Things might become pear shaped a little bit down the track,’ Mr Westacott says. 

In terms of prevention, Mr Westacott says that older people should seek out legal advice. ‘If there are family members putting pressure on the older person to enter into some type of financial arrangement, then it’s important that the older person actually takes the time to go to a solicitor,’ he says. 

Although it’s never easy to have difficult conversations around legal documents and finances with loved ones, it is vital that the older generation avoid being exploited by the people closest to them. 

If you need help, please contact Seniors Rights Victoria at https://seniorsrights.org.au/ or phone 1300 368 821.

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