Elder Abuse in WA – Prevention is Better than a Cure

Elder Abuse in WA – Prevention is Better than a Cure

Elder (or senior) abuse comes in many different forms, from physical abuse and threats to emotional control and manipulation.

Where the abusive behaviour is occurring in the context of a dependent relationship (ie the victim relies on the perpetrator for care or support) the victim is often very reluctant to make any sort of complaint at all. As such, it often takes an observant friend, family member or carer to raise the perceived issue with the victim and/or then take appropriate action to address the abuse on the victim’s behalf.

Elder abuse (typically of an elderly parent) is often (but not always) underpinned by a desire by the perpetrator to obtain some form of benefit which would otherwise not be forthcoming. Typical examples include accessing an ‘early inheritance’ or accessing a disproportionate amount for performing only ‘nominal’ duties (such as ‘caring’ when a parent is still largely independent) or some other benefit, such as living at the parent’s home without contributing financially at all where the parent feels coerced or obliged into letting the child stay. There may also be other consequences, such as an elderly person being restricted in their contact with friends, other family members or support services. It can even result in that elderly person not being properly cared for in a very basic way, such as lacking proper food, clothing or personal care (whether intentional or not).

Whilst elder abuse is most often thought of as occurring within families (with the perpetrator typically being a younger family member exploiting an older family member) there are also other settings where elder abuse can and does arise. Examples include within aged care facilities where staff members are the perpetrators, or even a neighbour or younger friend who seeks to exploit an elderly person known to them, often under the initial pretext of helping that elderly person out or providing ‘care’.

Many examples of elder abuse show that it will often begin in a fairly benign manner and will then escalate over time. For example, a child may initially suggest to an elderly parent that the parent moves into the child’s home on the basis that the child promises to care for the elderly parent and not move the parent into aged care. Sometime after the move has been made the child may then pressure the parent into signing a power of attorney in the child’s favour and seek to control the parent’s financial affairs. Ultimately this may potentially render the parent entirely reliant on the child and the more so if the parent has sold the ‘family home’ prior to moving in with the child and has no other substantial assets to call upon. In this type of scenario the parent becomes particularly vulnerable to elder abuse with few or no alternative options should the relationship with the child sour.

Where the abusive behaviour is a crime (such as physical abuse or forging signatures on documents) then it can be reported to the Police and the perpetrator can be charged with a criminal offence. If needs be, restraining orders can be ordered by the Police (for up to 72 hours) or by the Courts for longer periods to protect the victim from the perpetrator. Restraining orders are particularly useful where the victim currently resides with the perpetrator and has a limited ability (if any) to relocate themselves.

The fortunate upside to the increasing awareness of elder abuse within our society more broadly is that there is less stigma associated with reporting it, and an increased willingness by Police and other government agencies to investigate it. However, this willingness to investigate elder abuse needs to be kept in the context that it often involves complex, longstanding relationships and as such, it is often difficult for an elderly person to even acknowledge or admit that they may be the subject of abuse or exploitation. In some cases, this may be wilful blindness on the part of the elderly person but in other cases, the person may not appreciate the emotional manipulation that they may have been subjected to by the perpetrator. As such, in those cases the victim is often reluctant to make a formal complaint as they typically either do not want to get the perpetrator in trouble and/or they are genuinely fearful of the perpetrator.

However, it is also worth noting that many of the problems encountered in elder abuse scenarios can be mitigated against by some proactive forward planning and obtaining good advice about practical ways to structure a person’s financial and other affairs prior to becoming reliant on others. This of course necessitates that a person takes responsibility for their own future to try and avoid inadvertently putting themselves in a position where they may be vulnerable to becoming a victim of elder abuse. These steps can include putting legal documents in place such as a valid Will, a power of attorney (and/or guardianship as appropriate) which divides responsibilities between more than one person (to provide some level of check and balance) and an Advance Health Directive which clearly sets out a persons wishes in relation to their future care. The website of the WA Office of the Public Advocate also has some useful, easy to understand free resources and guides in this respect.

In addition, there may be a need to obtain legal and financial advice about other issues which typically arise in advanced years, such as the merits or otherwise of entering retirement villages or aged care facilities. This advice will often cover contractual issues and consumer protections. It may also be necessary to consider banking, insurance and other financial arrangements which are often put in place with the best of intentions, but which also may have avoidable unintended consequences. For example, Centrelink rules prevent a person claiming the aged pension where they have gifted substantial assets within the previous 5 years. This rule has caught people out where they have gifted the whole or a part of a major asset (typically real estate) to a child on the promise that the child will then care for them. That person will often then have no financial capacity to provide for themselves and may finds themselves the subject of unexpected elder abuse with no ability to access a government safety net payment.

Finally, if you have read this far and think that you may need some practical advice about your situation or that of a loved one, then now is probably the time to get in touch.

Austral Legal can help and we offer an initial discounted 30-minute SmartMove appointment for $80 by phone or in person at our office. Bookings can be made online or simply by getting in touch.

Once we have a handle on what is then required we will ordinarily be able to offer you a fixed fee for any further legal services so that you will know what your legal fees will be up-front with no hidden costs surprises down the track.