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Elder Abuse

December 2018

In past years there have been some shocking cases (Quinn, Heppell, Taylor) of caregiver abuse and neglect by family members which led to jail sentences.

Recent examples

A recent Court case of elder abuse is a reminder for those appointed in Enduring Powers of Attorney, whether for Property or for Care and Welfare, that it does not solely relate to neglect. This was a situation of psychological abuse by one of the sons of an elderly woman who suffered with dementia, which led to another son, the Attorney, applying for and obtaining a Protection Order against the first son.  The Court determined the first son’s behaviour amounted to domestic violence via a pattern of psychological abuse.

A Protection Order has also been granted on the application of an elderly woman’s sister and Attorney against the woman’s husband, who would not respect the wishes of the Rest Home in which his wife was placed.  Amongst other factors, in this case the Judge was concerned sexual contact was taking place where it had already been determined that the wife was incapable of making informed decisions (including consent) for herself.

In both cases the son/husband had refused to accept or comply with the directions and recommendations of experts involved with the care of their mother/wife including taking her out from the Rest Home against advice and exceeding both women’s mental and physical capacity.  In both there were clearly documented indications of the negative impact and distress the contact was causing for the elderly women. The Rest Homes involved, due to their concern about the distress of the elderly person caused by the son/husband and the abuse of their staff, had instituted Trespass Notices, but these were ignored, so the Attorneys applied for the Protection Orders.

What is elder abuse?

As well as neglect, it can be physical, psychological, financial and institutional abuse.

National and international research is clear that one out of every 10 older persons are abused and neglected; elders with dementia especially women, are at greater risk of abuse and neglect, much of which goes unresolved and unreported (one in 23 cases).  Sadly, 75% of alleged abusers are family, and 50% are the elderly person’s children or grandchildren; it occurs across all socio-economic and sexual orientation groups, cultures and races and in any setting including residential care.  Serious health problems, e.g. heart attacks, strokes and depression are very common for elderly abused persons and premature death is 30% higher than for the non-abused.  Look out for unexplained bruising, fractures or burns which can be indicators of physical abuse. 

Examples of psychological abuse (the most common) include isolating an elderly person, for example by stopping them seeing their other family and friends; verbally abusing and humiliating them; intimidating and threatening them; the elderly person becomes frightened of the abuser. 

Financial abuse accounts for just over half of reported cases and is the “improper use of funds, property or resources by another individual”.  Age Concern report that often family members move in with an elderly person, take over their homes and use the elderly person’s money to support their lifestyles; particularly common is fraudulently using the elderly person’s Cash Flow card.  Age Concern commented that where families find life more difficult financially, these issues are more common.   Sometimes it might be a “new best friend” who has taken over the care (and control) of the elderly person.  

Other examples are using the Enduring Power of Attorney as to Property to sell the elderly person’s home and regardless of the elderly person’s future needs, distributing the funds as the Attorney sees fit, including to other family members.  

The horrific cases referred to at the beginning of this article are the worst cases of neglect, but it can include not ensuring the elderly person’s hygiene needs are met, that they are not being fed and clothed properly, are dehydrated and generally ignoring their needs, i.e. hearing aids, walker, glasses and appointments.  It is important for dementia sufferers that they are neither left unsupervised, nor confined (to a room, or bed).  If still living in semi-independently, their environments must be safe, warm and clean. 

In many cases elderly people may be extremely reluctant to reveal abuse due to embarrassment; concepts of family loyalty and preservation, fear of further ostracisation or retaliation.  

You do not need to prove abuse is occurring; it is up to the professionals to investigate your concerns.  With a better understanding of the issue, the impending Christmas Holidays are a great opportunity to check up on elderly family and friends, ask questions and speak up if you think there might be abuse as frequently stoic elders will not report on their family. 

Conclusions

If you have any concerns for an elderly person you know or may be assisting in a volunteer or professional capacity, or are an Attorney pursuant to an Enduring  Power of Attorney and uncertain of your responsibilities or authority please contact us.  Sometimes all that might be required is a link to community supports but there are often times where the Court or Health Agencies need to be involved.  The Court has very broad powers in relation to elder abuse and can look into the operation of Enduring Powers of Attorney; the Police get involved in cases of fraud.