Financial abuse, along with, and often combined with, psychological abuse is probably the most common form of elder abuse and all indications are that it is rising. 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.
Sometimes the situation is straightforward, for example a care worker stealing from an older person’s purse, but at other times it is more difficult to be sure about. This is because the abuser is often someone’s son or daughter or because ageist attitudes in society may suggest it is not happening.
How far should the “expectation of trust” element extend in the case of financial abuse? Does FEA include all stealing or defrauding older people of their goods and/or property? In this case it would include scams and fraud and even burglary and mugging. Should FEA be seen as a crime, i.e. against the law? Are there situations when financial abuse is not a crime, for example when family members use assets which are seen as family property?
When my mother, in a care home in England, pressed me to take some money towards my air fare from New Zealand, should I have taken it?
There can also be problems when people are acting on an older person’s behalf – an enduring power of attorney for example. Keeping up charitable donations may deplete the older person’s assets and be very important to them. Is this justified? What about intent? Does unwise or poor financial management by a family member constitute financial abuse?
Should age be part of the definition of financial abuse at all? Don’t all people need protection from having their money and assets stolen or misused? Are older people in need of special protection? Laws and policies aimed specifically at them could be seen as paternalistic and discriminatory.
It is clear that financial abuse is a complex issue. It involves a range of perpetrators – family members, caregivers, professional advisers and commercial agents. It takes place in different settings – private homes, residential care facilities and also in wider society as older people have contact with banks, financial advisers and a multiplicity of financial and social services.
Why is FEA important?
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. The result can be higher levels of dependence and an increased need for care services.
In psychological terms, FEA may increase fear and lack of trust for older people. They may lose faith in all their family members or service providers, even if this is unwarranted. FEA threatens the dignity and human rights of our elders. A large-scale study of financial abuse, from the USA, concluded:
Elder financial abuse continues to decimate incomes both great and small, engenders health care inequities, fractures families, reduces available health care options, and increases rates of mental health issues among elders. Elder financial abuse invariably results in losses of human rights and dignity. Despite growing public awareness from a parade of high-profile financial abuse victims, it remains under-reported, under-recognized, and under-prosecuted.
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 FEA is a comparatively “new” issue, but it is hard to ignore its importance.
Next – why does financial elder abuse happen?