Elderly pressured into giving loans or selling home against their will.
Elder abuse is rife in New Zealand society and half of all instances seen by Age Concern involve financial abuse. As many as one in 10 older people may be victims of financial elder abuse, research suggests.
Monday marks the beginning of the 10th annual Elder Abuse Awareness Week. It's a shock to discover how little humanity some Kiwis have when it comes to the older generation.
"We consider it unacceptable to hit our children and we also need to consider it unacceptable to abuse our elders," says Robyn Scott, Age Concern's chief executive.
"We don't think about the way we speak about older people and we don't think about their rights."
Some people think because someone is old it doesn't matter what happens to them any more or they don't need money to spend, she says.
We all need to keep an eye out for elder abuse. "Don't let fear of meddling in someone else's business stop you from voicing your concern. It is time to stop elder abuse in our communities," says Scott.
According to Age Concern, three-quarters of alleged financial abusers in this country are family members who the older person has loved and cherished.
Financial elder abuse is the improper or illegal use of money, property or other assets. Examples cited by Age Concern include:
• Unauthorised taking of money or possessions.
• Misuse of power of attorney.
• Failure to repay loans.
• Use of home and/or utilities without contributing to costs.
• Lottery and romance scams.
Beliefs about intergenerational transfer of wealth are often behind the financial abuse. Children or grandchildren believe they're entitled to the older generation's money.
Researchers from the Victoria University Institute of Policy Studies and Age Concern who interviewed victims found many abusers simply do not recognise that older people are entitled to control their own money.
Age Concern believes the majority of abuse goes unreported. Even so the organisation gets an average of eight calls every working day about alleged elder abuse. Many more cases are reported to health providers, the police, lawyers, community support organisations and other prevention services. It's an epidemic and it often continues even once the victim has gone into residential care.
The abusers pressure older people into doing things they don't really want to do such as giving a loan, selling their house or letting a family member move in for free, says Scott.
Sometimes the existence of money or other financial wants leads to other forms of abuse such as neglect and physical threats. Or the grandchildren are used as a means of blackmail or extorting money or property.
The BNZ created the role of security and fraud co-ordinator for Bronwyn Groot because of her concern about financial elder abuse. Bank tellers are often the first to spot a financial abuse.
They may notice repeated visits to the bank by an older person, an unusually large withdrawal or people escorting the victim to the ATM. Sometimes they realise that a regular customer has become forgetful or is acting unusually.
"We had one case, for example, of a young woman who followed an elderly gentleman to the supermarket. She took him to the bank and he withdrew some money." When she returned with the man a second time, a staff member became suspicious.
It turned out that the woman faced criminal charges for violent offending against older people.
In another case an older man was befriended by a woman who later threatened him with a knife until he handed over his bank card and PIN.
Groot sees a lot of cases where a relative asks for a loan and convinces the parent or parents they will pay the money back. Some may have power of attorney, which enables them to help themselves to the money.
Cases where family are involved can be the most difficult, says Groot. "Often the victim doesn't want someone else to know." Their beliefs about family loyalty contribute to the silence.
She dealt with one case where an alcoholic son was trying to convince his mother, who had dementia, to live with him so he could get control of her money. In that case a court order was secured so that a trust company could manage her property.
In another, a drug-addicted grandson, who had been disowned by his family, preyed on his grandmother, telling her stories such as he had cancer and needed money. She didn't even have the money he wanted and borrowed it - telling the lender she needed the money for renovations.
Groot has also seen older people go hungry because they can't afford to pay for their groceries, and go cold because they can't afford their power bill.
The authors of a report by the former Families Commission interviewed older people who had been abused.
On several occasions relatives activated enduring powers of attorney against the older person's wishes to access their money.
In another case a son and daughter-in-law moved in with the victim and then eventually evicted him from his own house.
It's also not uncommon, says Scott, for family to take over an elderly relative's home, slowly squeezing him or her into a smaller part of the house. Eventually the older person is moved into residential care and the family take over the whole house.
Groot's work involves educating bank staff about what to look for, and with the more serious cases visiting the victim to offer help or contacting other agencies such as Age Concern or the police.
One of the problems agencies dealing with financial elder abuse come across is that a lot of the behaviour is not actually illegal.
There's nothing illegal, for example, about freeloading in an older person's house, even if it's morally repugnant. Nor is threatening an older person that they won't see their grandchildren if money isn't handed over, which happens commonly.
Another growing issue, says Groot, is children pressuring their parents to go guarantor on their homes or businesses.
This is becoming more common thanks to rising house prices. If the children fall behind on payments or the business fails, the older generation can lose their homes.
Many older people also fall prey to scams. Groot met one older man who received 160 letters from scammers in his letterbox in a day.
Typically, says Groot, scam victims are isolated and lonely, making them easy targets of romance or lottery fraud.
A University of Auckland study concluded that we need community and societal change to reduce ageism. Practical strategies include the provision of information to older people, family and carers that support the empowerment of older people.
Dealing with the problem on a practical level can be difficult. Older people's money is theirs to spend even if family don't approve of what they're doing, says Scott. And many older people will put up with the abuse because they don't want the family torn apart.
There have been minor gains over the years. The Crimes Amendment Act has a legal requirement that a person who has care of a vulnerable adult has to protect them from being abused. Likewise the Protection of Personal and Property Rights Act has been strengthened requiring that enduring powers of attorney have independent witnesses.
Contact details for Age Concern's Elder Abuse and Neglect Prevention Services can be found here.