The difficulties of defining Financial Elder Abuse (FEA) can make it hard to quantify. It is clearly under-recognised, as are all types of elder abuse. There are many reasons for this. Older people may not want to report that they are being abused by family members. They may fear a loss of financial independence or think that somehow they are to blame. Older people, even without cognitive disability, may be unaware that they are being abused (or do not recognise actions as abuse).
According to findings from several sources, FEA is estimated to affect from 0.5% to 18% of older people – a wide range. These reports are based mainly on data from professional services and help-lines.
Although it is extremely difficult to establish trends, it appears that FEA is increasing. This can be linked to growth in the older age groups, especially people aged 85 plus, as well as higher numbers of people affected by dementia. It is also clear that a high proportion of financial assets are held by older people. This is especially the case for mortgage-free home ownership, at a time when younger people are finding owning a home harder to achieve. At the same time, people are living longer, so that inheritance is delayed.
New Zealand data
Knowledge about FEA in New Zealand relies mainly on data published by Age Concern New Zealand services. The 19 Age Concern Elder Abuse and Neglect Prevention (EANP) Services receive about 2,000 referrals for elder abuse each year. Two-thirds of these are confirmed to be elder abuse by persons in a relationship of trust with the victim. Up to 50% of cases involve financial abuse, either as the main form, or occurring with another form of abuse. This been a consistent trend since data collection began in 1997.
Who are the abusers and who are the victims?
Age Concern data shows that family members, primarily adult sons and daughters, are responsible for 75% of elder abuse, regardless of the type. Recent studies in the UK and Ireland give similar findings, also noting that other relatives (excluding spouses) are more often responsible for FEA than for other forms of elder abuse.
It also appears that FEA is the most prevalent form of abuse against women aged over 90. The trend is less clear for men. Age Concern found that financial abuse is more common where older people are living with family members. This is inconsistent with international reports. The UK and Irish studies found more FEA among older people living alone and in poor health. Older people who are disabled, socially isolated and dependent appear to be especially susceptible to FEA.
Here are some local examples (modified to protect privacy) to illustrate what can happen.
Pre-meditated financial abuse
Pam and Fred were leaving to visit family in another country – a trip they had been saving up for and looking forward to. Just before they left, their daughter, Joan, asked them to leave Pam’s EFTPOS card and PIN number so that she could put some money into her mother’s account. When they returned and contacted their bank they found the account has been emptied. As a result, they got into rent arrears and had no money to pay telephone or power bills, or to repay the small loan they had taken out to cover the overseas trip. They reported the theft to the police, but they recommended that Pam and Fred take a low key approach for the sake of their grandchildren.
Rena has her grandson, Peter, living with her; she has brought him up since he was a child. He regularly takes cash from Rena and uses it for gambling. Peter recognises that he has an addiction, but he is kind and helpful to his grandmother in other ways, taking over gardening, cooking and painting.
Misuse of Enduring Power of Attorney (EPA)
Alfred has dementia and is living in a rest home. His eldest son and daughter-in-law have his EPA but seldom visit him. An old army friend, George, called at Alfred’s old home and was astounded to find his son living there, and that Alfred had been moved into care. George knew that Alfred had always been very clear that he never wanted to live in a rest home and had taken steps to ensure he could stay in his own home. Alfred had adapted his home to suit his needs and saved enough money to ensure he could employ live-in caregivers. George was appalled to see that Alfred’s wishes had been disregarded and his house and money taken by the people he had trusted to look after his interests.
Next week– what can be done to prevent financial elder abuse?
Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate
Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington