Prevalence of elder financial abuse
Little research data is available relating to the incidence of financial abuse of older people in Australia.
A study conducted by Monash University and State Trustees in Victoria in 2010 concluded that on the basis of evidence that does exist, financial elder abuse is an important issue in Australia. The study reported that between 0.5 per cent to five per cent of older Australians aged 65 and older have experienced financial abuse.
A Queensland study conducted in 2003 found clearly abusive asset management practices in 13 per cent of cases. An earlier Queensland study found that one in four people had assisted an older person with asset management in the past year, and that the majority of that assistance was informal. Only 1.4 per cent of assistance involved a guardianship order, and 15.4 per cent involved use of an enduring Power of Attorney.
In Assets for care, Senior Rights Victoria reported that financial abuse is a significant and growing problem. It is the most frequently reported form of elder abuse, the main perpetrators of which are adult children, particularly sons. Its importance is growing as people live longer, are more vulnerable through the associated increase in the incidence of dementia and where, in contemporary society, people over 50 years are relatively asset rich. The most common trigger for abuse is the vulnerability of the older person.
Abuse is aided by some family arrangements that entail divesting the older person of assets so that they qualify for the old age pension. The most common transaction involving financial abuse of older people is a disposal of the older person's land, or an investment in land without adequate protection or for consideration which is illusory.
Financial abuse of older people under-reported
The rates and incidence of financial abuse of older people are widely believed to be significantly under-reported. The reasons for under-reporting stem from the reluctance of victims to report the abuse. There is also evidence that people who are under the care of healthcare professionals, the reports of whom form the basis for much of the estimates of the prevalence of abuse, are less likely to be victims of it. A key factor in abuse is isolation of the victim.
Why victims don't report financial abuse
Senior Rights Victoria reports that older people often remain silent and fail to act when they become a victim of abuse. The reasons given include:
- fear of the costs or consequences such as being removed from their home, being placed in an aged care facility, losing the right to see grandchildren, losing a relationship with a family member or the chance of providing parental love
- feelings of shame about their adult child’s behaviour
- not wanting to reveal deeply held personal matters
- the tendency to excuse the failings of their children or reluctance to get their children into trouble (protective love)
- lack of understanding that what is occurring is abusive
- cognitive impairment
- multiple health problems.
Fear, lack of confidence, frailty, declining health, resulting depression, a feeling of powerlessness. All these factors may be present to undermine the motivation of the older victim to act.
It is important that practitioners are aware of these likely responses when coming across potential incidences of financial abuse.