What is elder abuse?
Sometimes, things don’t work as they should. Abuse can happen to older people, and the likelihood is that it’s going to be at home at the hands of family members or “friends”. Sadly, Age Concern say they uncover at least two new cases of abuse or neglect of older people every day in New Zealand, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Abuse and neglect of older people is internationally defined as: “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person. It can be of various forms: physical, psychological/emotional, sexual, financial/material abuse, and/or intentional or unintentional neglect.”
What counts as abuse?
Behaviour causing mental anguish, stress or fear. For example:
- Ridicule or threats. Harassment or humiliation.
- Preventing choice or decision-making.
- Withholding affection.
Illegal or improper use of money, property or other resources. For example:
- Unauthorised taking of money or possessions.
- Misuse of power of attorney.
- Failing to repay loans.
- Use of home and/or utilities without contributing to costs.
Infliction of pain, injury or use of force. For example:
- Hitting, pushing, rough handling.
- Inappropriate use of restraints or confinement.
Non-consensual sexual acts or exploitive behaviours. For example:
- Inappropriate touching.
- Sexual acts with someone unable to give consent.
- Not providing for physical, emotional or social needs. For example:
- Inadequate food, clothing or shelter.
- Lack of social contact and support.
- Health needs not attended to.
10 signs of elder abuse
Signs that abuse or neglect is occurring may include:
- Fear of a particular person or people.
- Anxiety for no obvious reason.
- Irritability and being overly emotional.
- Presenting as helpless, hopeless and sad.
- Using contradictory statements not resulting from mental confusion.
- Reluctance to talk openly. For example, waiting for the carer to answer.
- Avoidance of the usual amount of physical, eye or verbal contact this person uses.
- Not having enough money for necessities or to pay bills.
- Unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts.
- Possessions disappearing.
Who is most at risk?
- It can be difficult to identify abuse. But being aware of the risk factors can help. These include:
- Being dependant on others.
- Family conflict or dysfunction. Family violence.
- Stress in care relationships.
- Mature age children or dependents with a disability or health issues.
- Mental illness and dementia.
- Poor literacy and/or awareness of rights.
What do I do?
Older people are valuable members of society. They deserve our respect, our care and our attention. Unfortunately, some people take advantage of the vulnerability and frailty that age often brings. If you’re an older person, you’re entitled to the same rights as anyone else. If you feel you’re not being treated right, or if you’re concerned about how an older person is being treated, you can get help.
If you suspect elder abuse is occurring
It’s not always easy to tell if elder abuse or neglect is occurring. Victims are often reluctant or even unable to talk about it. However, if you’re concerned about an older person, do something! As always in an emergency, call 111. Get in touch with a help agency such as Age Concern. If you’re in close contact with the older person:
- Make sure they’re safe.
- Offer reassurance that you’re there to help.
- Ask them if they’re happy for you to talk to an agency that can help.
- You could ask them if they’re scared of anyone, whether they’ve been mistreated and how, and if they feel safe in their environment or their relationship with family members.
If their answers raise concerns:
- Listen and make your responses calm and matter-of-fact.
- Don’t make any judgements about either the older person or the abuser.
- Believe them and show them they’re not alone – they have your support.
- Tell them what you would like to do to help, but offer choices so they feel in control.
- Let them decide when something should happen.
Most of us, with any luck, will grow old. Advances in medical science and valuable information on nutrition and lifestyle make it more likely that life expectancy will continue to rise. Because of this, the proportion of older people in the population is going to grow for some time yet.
There are many positive aspects to having lots of older people around. They can share their wisdom, they make up a sizeable block of consumers paying for goods and services, and if retired they have time to volunteer and assist businesses with their time and expertise. On top of that, many over the current retirement age of 65 are still in the paid workforce (22% of men and 11% of women aged over 65).
Being a guarantor
In recent years many older people have lost their life savings in financial institution collapses and fraudulent schemes. They’re not alone in suffering the devastating effects, though because of their age they’re less likely to rebuild their savings.
Some older people have lost their savings helping out a family member or friend by offering to be a guarantor. If you’re considering being a guarantor for a child or grandchild, for example, Neighbourhood Support suggests a good rule of thumb: act as guarantor only if you can write a cheque for the amount you are guaranteeing at the time you are asked to act as guarantor. Because if things do go wrong in a mortgage, loan or hire purchase, you will be liable to repay if the person you’re guaranteeing for can’t or won’t repay their debt.
Similarly, older people are sometimes asked to be a guarantor for telephone or electricity accounts or asked to have a connection for another family member put under their name. If the person you are guaranteeing defaults on the payments, you will have to pay even if you can’t afford to.
Neighbourhood Support suggests you ask yourself:
- Why are you being asked to be a guarantor?
- Are you being coerced or emotionally blackmailed? For example, do you feel obliged to help out family, even if you know there’s a high risk they can’t/won’t pay?
- Why is a guarantor required – is there a bad credit history?
- Is the borrower realistic about the repayments – can they afford them even if things go wrong? For example, what happens if they lose their job?
- How mature and responsible is the borrower?
- Is the loan for a need or a want? Remember, you often went without until you could pay cash.
- Is the loan for a new business? Many new businesses don’t succeed.
- Is the loan for an existing business? If the business is viable, there should be enough capital in the business to get a loan without a guarantor.
- Can you afford to pay any default on the part of the borrower?
Acting as guarantor means:
- If it’s for a phone or power connection, you’ll have to pay any large toll or service accounts that the person you are acting for can’t/won’t pay.
- If it’s for a bank loan, it’s common that the amount guaranteed is unlimited and includes future borrowings (for example, extra interest on an overdraft). If the borrower defaults, the bank can demand repayment from the guarantor and does not have to exhaust other remedies first.
- As well as having to pay the amount borrowed, you will also be responsible for debt recovery costs.
- Anything you list as security can be taken and sold to pay the debt. This could even include your home if you use it as security.
If you’re seriously considering being a guarantor, get legal advice. Similarly, if you find yourself in a bind after signing an unwise guarantee, get advice immediately as some legal remedies might be available. Your local Community Law office will be able to advise.
Enduring power of attorney
You might have heard about an enduring power of attorney, but what is it? Having an enduring power of attorney means greater peace of mind for you, as an older person. You can choose someone you trust to act on your behalf and in your best interests if you lose the ability to manage your affairs. It also means a lot less stress for your family and friends because they know you’ve made arrangements.
There are two types of enduring power of attorney:
- A Personal Care and Welfare enduring power of attorney.
- A Property enduring power of attorney.
Most people set up both types.
Under a Personal Care and Welfare enduring power of attorney you choose one person to make decisions about your care and welfare on your behalf if you become mentally incapable.
Under a Property enduring power of attorney, you can appoint one or more attorneys to make decisions about your property affairs. You can, if you wish, give your property attorney authority to manage your property affairs while you still have the capacity. It’s important to choose your attorney wisely.
For your Personal Care and Welfare Attorney, you will want to select someone who knows your likes and dislikes. Having them live nearby is helpful because they’ll be required to encourage you to act on your behalf, and to stay connected to the community, as much as possible.
For your Property Attorney, you should choose someone who can handle your money matters easily and responsibly. You’ll need to talk to the people you wish to be your attorney(s) first.