An incidence of financial abuse of an older person may be intentional and clearly wrong, perhaps involving illegal activity, in which case it is likely to be easier to identify. Abuse is not always easy to identify however. Sometimes arrangements, originally motivated by good intentions, gradually erode into financial abuse, as the perpetrator succumbs to the temptation of opportunity, misguided feelings of entitlement, or even perhaps revenge for perceived past injustices.
Although recognising the potential for financial abuse of an older person may not always be easy, there are a number of factors which, if present, may indicate a heightened danger of abuse and encourage the practitioner to ask more questions and to be more alert.
Consider whether they appear to be: vulnerable
displaying reduced capacity
WHAT IS FINANCIAL ABUSE?
There are a number of definitions of what constitutes financial abuse of older people.
The World Health Organisation defines financial abuse of an older person as, "The illegal or improper exploitation or use of funds or other resources of the older person". The definition includes acts with adverse outcomes committed not only by people known to and trusted by the victim, but also acts perpetrated by strangers and by institutions.
Abuse may be intentional or unintentional. Intentional financial abuse is defined in Monash University's Protecting Elders' Assets Study, as "the separation of a person from the benefit of their assets for the benefit of another, involving deliberate intention". Unintended abuse is "the inadvertent or uninformed financial mismanagement or neglect of financial assets which causes the deprivation of benefits to be derived from those assets".
The following are given in the study as common examples of financial abuse:
- misappropriation or misuse of money, property or assets
- exerting undue influence to give away assets or gifts
- putting undue pressure on the older person to accept lower-cost or lower-quality services in order to preserve more financial resources to be passed to beneficiaries on death
- carrying out unnecessary work or overcharging for a service
- misuse of powers of attorney
- denial to access funds
- failure to repay loans
- living with the older person and refusing to contribute money for expenses
- forging or forcing an older person's signature
- promising long-term care in exchange for money or property and then not providing the promised care
- getting an older person to sign a will, contract or power of attorney through deception, coercion or undue influence
- abusing joint signatory authority on a blank form
- getting an older person to be a guarantor for a loan where the benefit of the loan is for someone else without sufficient information or knowledge to make an informed decision.
INDICATORS OF POTENTIAL FINANCIAL ABUSE
It is common for close family and friends to be well intentioned in their planning for care of an older person. Their intentions may stem from over protectiveness or a sense of obligation.
The range of acts or omissions that constitute abuse occur along a continuum: at one end, harm results from a poor understanding of an older person's needs; at the other, harm results from aggression and serious physical assault. In different circumstances, different sorts of interventions are required.
Abuse may occur as a result of an inability to cope, frustration, ignorance or negligence. Abuse can be unintentional or deliberate. Some forms of abuse are criminal acts, for example, physical and sexual abuse. Other types, such as financial misappropriation, may not reach the level of criminality, but may require redress through guardianship or civil proceedings. Other situations might be best regarded as forms of domestic violence, with interventions shaped accordingly. Economic abuse is included in the definition of family and domestic violence.
Remember, in most cases you will be looking at potential elder abuse and your objective will be to ensure that the older person is making an independent and informed decision and has considered and canvassed the full implications of any transactions and possible changes in circumstances into the future.
WARNING SIGNS AND INDICATORS
Senior Rights Victoria has listed the following signs and risk factors, which may indicate potential financial abuse.
- promises of "good care" in exchange for transferring property or money to the carer
- gear, stress or anxiety expressed by the older person
- unfamiliar, new or forged signatures on cheques and documents
- the older person has given their bank PIN number to another person
- the older person is unable to access bank accounts or statements themselves
- large, unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts
- sudden transfer of assets at a time when the older person may no longer be competent to manage their own affairs
- accounts suddenly switched to another financial institution or branch
- drastic changes in the types of banking activities – erratic or uncharacteristic
- drastic changes to a will, power or attorney or other legal documents
- valuable assets, such as a car, jewellery or artworks go missing
- signs of physical or psychological abuse of the older person
- no money available for aged care bond when there should be money available
- no money to pay bills when there should be, for example, older persons complains of no heating when in fact they can afford it
- an increase in the number of unpaid bills handled by a family member
- an absence or lack of amenities when the older person seemingly can afford them, for example, television, clothes, clean linen
- secretiveness of the older person
- secretiveness of the "carer" – siblings not being informed
- a family member is borrowing against a major asset owned by the older person
- older person is regularly paying someone else's bills
- the "carer" is an adult child, living with the older person, who does not appear to be contributing to the housekeeping expenses
- older person expresses concern about missing funds
- older person complains of no longer receiving any mail.
The following factors, if present, indicate the person may be at risk of financial abuse. The practitioner should be vigilant for signs of abuse, such as:
- physical frailty
- lacking self-confidence
- dependency on others for basic needs
- reduced capacity to understand information or make decisions
- isolation from neighbours, family or the community
- a trusting relationship with a person who has influence over decisions
- appearance of not being in control of their affairs
- evidence of undue influence of a family member
- unkempt or unclean appearance
- lack of formal arrangements for care and management of financial affairs
- history of physical or other forms of abuse
- apparent lack of a loving relative who clearly cares for the older person's welfare
- impatience or secretiveness of person purporting to manage the older person's affairs
- language difficulties, requiring a family member to translate
- the older person suffers from dementia and is aggressive and difficult to manage.
SIGNS OF POSSIBLE LACK OF CAPACITY
The following factors, if present, may indicate a lack of capacity on behalf of the older person:
- poor concentration – limited ability to interact with practitioner or to repeat advice and ask key questions
- appears overwhelmed
- difficulty with recall or memory loss
- ongoing difficulty with communications – difficult to understand
- lack of mental flexibility – not open to even hearing about options or risks
- poor insight or judgment
- problems with simple calculations which they did not have previously
- sense that "something about the client has changed".
Financial abuse of older people is usually accompanied by other forms of abuse. Where there is a history or evidence of physical, psychological or sexual abuse, or where a beneficiary appears to exercise undue influence over the older person, or where the older person appears fearful and reluctant to speak in the presence of a person with influence over their affairs, financial abuse should also be suspected.