Is your older loved one fresh meat for financial exploitation? It sounds harsh, but sadly I've watched with two degrees of separation an older person with dementia being targeted for his money. We're not talking outright crimes. More like being an easy target for carers' sob stories, commission salespeople who think they're onto a winner, and oversized bills for services.
The 70,000 New Zealanders living with dementia tend to be at the vulnerable end of people at risk of financial abuse, especially if they're dependent on others for household tasks and shopping.
Dementia is progressive and people can live independently and continue to work and manage their own symptoms. Some will inevitably be exploited in connection with their money, property and possessions.
Helping can be tricky. Firstly, older people have rights, including the right to spend their money as they choose, not as the family thinks they should. People can make good and bad decisions at any age and that's their choice.
Secondly, it's not always an outsider who helps themselves to money. It's just as likely to be a member of the family who wants "their inheritance" early. It's not uncommon for a son/daughter or grandchild, to have access to the Eftpos card while doing caregiving work. Financial elder abuse within the family is tricky. The victim may not want to stir up dramas.
This week I spoke with Age Concern, Alzheimer's New Zealand and the government's Office for Seniors. The first two emphasised the need for people to make preparations before your illness progresses. That includes writing a will and setting up enduring powers of attorney for property and personal care and welfare (EPAs) before you get to the point of being vulnerable.
If your relative does need your help, then some of the things you can try are:
• Have a family conference. You might want to set up a family Messenger group so that discussions are out in the open, says Age Concern's Hanny Naus.
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• Create a living will/advanced care plan. This outlines your relative's wishes should they become incapacitated. The Health Quality & Safety Commission NZ has detailed information on this here. Having a will and EPAs in place ensure you get the people you trust to help you, not someone appointed by the court.
• Educate yourself. Alzheimer's NZ and other groups such as Dementia Auckland offer education and support groups for care partners or family members.
• Talk to the bank. With your relative's approval you can make the bank aware that the customer has issues related to dementia. Banks such as Westpac train staff to be dementia friendly. Sometimes the bank can structure accounts so that only small sums of money are available in a daily account. You may be able to set up dual signatories for withdrawals.
• Make yourself known. Share your concerns with the general practitioners even if they can't talk about your relative. GPs are involved in dementia assessments. Likewise give your name and number to others such as the hairdresser, café staff and greengrocer so that they can contact you with concerns, says Naus.
• Use care agencies. Care agencies have strict policies around clients and money, that private carers aren't subject to, says Naus. It also works two ways in that care agencies are sometimes alerted by their staff of potential elder abuse happening within the family.
• Check your relative's credit files. If you are concerned that money is disappearing it's worth ordering credit files from all three credit reporting agencies: Illion, Equifax and Centrix. This can give you an indication if there are financial irregularities or credit being taken out in your relative's name.
You can get advice from Age Concern's Elder Abuse Services, at 0800 65 2 105, the government funded Elder Abuse Response Service at 0800 EA NOT OK (0800 32 668 65), or visit Superseniors.msd.govt.nz/elder-abuse for more information.