Elderly residents with dementia being overmedicated, mistreated and inappropriately restrained — Australians were horrified by reports of elder abuse at the Oakden Older Person’s Mental Health Service in 2017. But in some ways, the studies that followed, including one undertaken by the National Commission on Elder Abuse, revealed a situation that was even more shocking. Elder abuse is more common than previously thought and less well understood.

Family members and carers have an important part to play in preventing and remedying this problem. The legal community has a role, too. Together, they may be able to put a problem in the past. But first, it is important to understand what elder abuse is and the circumstances under which it occurs.   

Findings of the National Commission on Elder Abuse

Like other types of family violence, elder abuse can be hidden in plain view. The Australian Institute of Family Studies estimates that between 2 and 10 per cent of older Australians are abused each year. Neglect may be even more common. The danger to elders increases with greater age, social isolation and cognitive impairment.

Financial abuse sometimes masked as “inheritance impatience,” is the most common form of abuse. Some family agreements involve an older person transferring the title to their home, the proceeds from the sale of the home or other assets to an adult child in exchange for ongoing care, support and housing. These ‘assets for care’ arrangements are typically made without legal advice and are often not put in writing. There can be serious consequences for the older person if he or she is ultimately left without sufficient resources.

Other issues include physical, sexual and psychological abuse and neglect. Women are more than twice as likely to be victims as men, and perpetrators are often close family members. Seventy per cent of the offenders are children of the victim; sons are more likely to be the perpetrators.

Some incidents, like those uncovered in the Oakden report, are specifically related to residential care settings. These may include medication mismanagement, overuse of psychotropic medications, issues of food safety, failure to respond in a timely manner to patients requiring assistance, and inadequate wound management leading to death.

Elder abuse and neglect is clearly a multidimensional problem that clearly requires a multidimensional response.

What family members and carers can do when they suspect abuse

Family members, carers and medical professionals may be the first to suspect that an older person is suffering from abuse or neglect, and it is essential that they reach out to professional resources. Do not ignore unexplained bumps, bruises, personality changes or dwindling finances. If an older person withdraws from friends and family, inexplicably stops receiving mail or phone calls or seems to be engaging in unusual banking transactions, something may be amiss. There a wealth of confidential hotlines and other resources in NSW, including the Elder Abuse Helpline & Resource Unit.

How to help a family member choose an aged care or a retirement facility

More on the preventative side of the equation, family members and other community friends can be of great assistance in helping an older person choose an appropriate facility. Reputation review is essential, but it is also important to ensure that the atmosphere and support provided are appropriate and affordable.

Someone with extensive medical needs, for example, may be more interested in a facility that offers graduated levels of medical care than in the “active living” amenities of a retirement village designed for younger and more able residents.

From a financial perspective, it is important to understand the different contractual arrangements and ownership options that different kinds of facilities offer, as well as recurrent charges, departure fees and tax implications.

These contracts may be up to 80 pages long and must be carefully reviewed to ensure that the choice is a wise one.

How a law firm can help

Physical abuse may ultimately be best dealt with through law enforcement resources.  Fraud and other forms of financial abuse are criminal matters and are dealt with primarily under state and territory crimes legislation. An attorney may be quick to detect these problems or to prevent garden- variety financial mismanagement.

In addition to reviewing contractual arrangements for care, a lawyer may be able to be helpful in the review of financial preparations on behalf of the older person, including:

  • Durable powers of attorney;
  • Banking arrangements;
  • Annuity and superannuation income;
  • Wills;
  • Guardianship arrangements; and
  • Health insurance coverage.

The attorneys at Owen Hodge Lawyers would be happy to meet with you to discuss any questions you may have about elder care, financial planning or concerns about abuse or neglect. Please call us at your earliest convenience at 1800 770 780.