World Elder Abuse Awareness Day – helping the elderly to protect themselves

Mr Smith* loaned money to his son-in-law, Mr Green*, to help him fund the deposit to buy a home. In Mr Smith’s mind, he was helping his relative and, although Mr Green was the only person registered on title, Mr Smith also regarded himself as a co-owner and as having a share in the equity of the house. After the home was purchased, Mr Smith lived in the home solely and paid money to Mr Green each month, which Mr Smith considered was his contribution towards the mortgage. Mr Green subsequently stated that he considered the loan to be a gift and the regular ongoing payments to be rent. When the relationship soured and Mr Green sought to evict Mr Smith, telling Mr Smith he was a tenant, Mr Smith was left feeling betrayed, facing major financial disadvantage and the possibility of homelessness.

Sadly, stories of this type are not uncommon. Disputes over property are just one example of elder abuse. Elderly people who struggle with health issues, become physically or mentally frail, lose their independence or feel emotionally pressured into helping their children or extended family are particularly vulnerable. Elder abuse can take the form of physical, mental, emotional, social, psychological or sexual abuse, and it is generally carried out by someone the person knows or trusts, such as a family member, a friend or workers such as those who provide in-home care or at aged care facilities.

Today marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). Elder abuse is a global issue that affects millions of older people. It is also an emotionally fraught issue, with obvious social and moral significance. It is difficult to put a figure on the exact number of people affected, as, according to the World Health Organization, prevalence rates – which range from 1 to 10 per cent – exist only in selected developed countries.

Hall & Wilcox’s pro bono practice helps victims of elder abuse through our partnerships with the Senior Rights Service Clinic in Sydney and Senior Rights Victoria and Justice Connect in Melbourne. Cases can involve disputes over property or money with family members or allegations of stealing or neglect against in-home or residential aged care workers.

Nathan Kennedy, Director of Hall & Wilcox’s Pro Bono & Community practice, said there were some steps elderly people could take to protect themselves:

  • seek legal advice before signing any document, especially powers of attorney, or entering into any arrangements that will affect their rights or financial circumstances
  • don’t sign right there and then; take documents away to get advice
  • don’t appoint a sole attorney
  • speak to medical practitioners if anyone else is raising concerns about their capacity and contact the office of the public advocate (or equivalent) for advice and
  • set out, in advance, their understanding of any important arrangements with family members or friends clearly in writing;

‘Sadly, elder abuse does seem to be on the rise in our society. It is distressing for elderly people, many of whom have worked hard all their lives, to be suddenly faced with financial hardship or loss of property or emotional abuse from loved ones. These cases can be difficult to work on but are extremely fulfilling when we are able to help someone in this situation. Our work helps to ensure that the elderly are treated with the respect and dignity to which we are all entitled,’ said Nathan.

Mr Smith’s lawyer, a solicitor at Hall & Wilcox, agreed that working on elder abuse matters brings both challenges and rewards. In Mr Smith’s case, Hall & Wilcox’s lawyers provided legal advice but also support to Mr Smith, who was initially very stressed and discouraged about his situation.

‘In that process, you’re not necessarily just giving legal advice but you’re reassuring the client that there are legal processes available to assist them and that you’re doing all you can to help. I felt in equal parts a sense of reward from working on the matter and satisfaction in achieving a result our client was happy with,’ said his lawyer.

If you need advice on elder abuse matters, please contact the Senior Rights Service on 1800 424 079 or Senior Rights Victoria on 1300 368 821.

* Not his real name