Super Informed Radio episode #9: Elder abuse
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Lyndon: Well hello there and welcome to Super Informed Radio, our official UniSuper podcast. My name is Lyndon.
Rob: I'm Rob.
Marta: And I'm Marta. So last month we took a bit of a light-hearted approach to spending and saving by setting ourselves a bit of a challenge. Now I don't about you guys, but I don't know who won…
Lyndon: How have you gone in the intervening month, Marta?
Marta: Well, I'd rather not say [laughs]. So, this month's podcast we're taking a slightly more serious turn, aren't we, Rob?
Rob: Yeah, we are. We're looking at the issue of elder abuse. And the very name can certainly conjure up a negative connotation. But what exactly is it? So to help us understand this issue, why it occurs and some tips to safeguard yourself against it, we've invited in Briony Dow, who is the Associate Professor of Ageing at the University of Melbourne and also the Director of the National Ageing Research Institute, where she manages a program of research encompassing improving care for older people in Victorian health services, falls and balance, healthy ageing, diversity in ageing, ageing and mental health. Briony, thank you so much for joining us today—just to start, can you tell us a little bit about the work you do at the National Ageing Research Institute?
Briony: Yeah, sure. I'm the Director of the National Ageing Research Institute, which is an independent not-for-profit medical research institute. It's been around for 40 years and it was set up to bring research and education about gerontology into Australia because 40 years ago nobody was doing that. Interestingly, what it was set up to do is pretty much what we still do, which is very practical oriented research. So, research that informs policy and practice, and education for people who are already working in the aged care sector.
Marta: When you say ‘elder abuse’, it's something that's coming up more and more frequently in the media and also within the sort of fraternity or whatever of financial services. It seems like it's a pretty self-explanatory topic. But then I think... well, my understanding is it's quite complex. So how would you define it?
Briony: Well, I define it like most people do working in the area, which is using the World Health Organisation definition, so that's the most widely accepted definition. And that talks about it being either an act—or a failure to act—that causes harm and distress to an older person, but happens within a relationship of trust. So, usually it's a family member or someone who’s providing care to the older person. And it's usually categorised into six different types. So, financial abuse (which is by far the most common), emotional abuse, sexual abuse (which is rare), physical abuse, neglect... I've forgotten one, I think.
Actually, in America, they include self-neglect, which is interesting, because we don't talk about that much here because of the relationship of trust—so is it yourself that you should be able to trust to look after you. But what happens is most of these things occur at the same time—oh, ‘social’ was the one I forgot—so someone who's financially abusing an older person will also isolate them socially so that they can't talk to their friends or GP or the people who would normally provide them with support.
So there's quite a range really of scenarios and it calls for different responses, that's one of the complexities of it. So sometimes it needs a legal response, sometimes it needs more of a health response, supporting family carer type response. You know so there's quite a range of different ways in which that it manifests itself and therefore you need to respond differently.
Lyndon: Are we sort of hearing more about elder abuse because it's more common or because it's just becoming more understood, or is it a bit of a combination of both, Briony?
Briony: Yeah, I think it's a bit of a combination. I mean we have more older people, so we, therefore, have more elder abuse, I guess. But also I think there are some intergenerational issues that are playing out more strongly now. The older people probably do tend to be more asset-rich than perhaps younger generations. We're seeing more family breakdown, we're seeing people with drug and alcohol problems living into older age. So it's actually those middle-aged people with drug and alcohol problems that are often abusing their parents. So I think there’s a combination of things.
But I think we're also becoming much more aware of it. I mean there's the Aged Care Commissioner, there's been an Australian Law Reform Commission Inquiry into elder abuse law. The Family Violence Royal Commission in Victoria looked at elder abuse—you know, there's a lot more attention being paid to it.
Rob: And is financial abuse the most common?
Briony: Yeah, yeah it is.
Rob: It is? And why is that?
Briony: That's a good question.
Rob: Is that the easiest?
Briony: I'm not sure why it's the most common, it just… it is the most common. Perhaps the drivers are a bit different to physical... I mean physical abuse is probably rarer more generally, although, you know, it's common enough. But I think probably the drivers are mostly financial for abuse even when it goes into the other areas.
Marta: So carrying on that theme from Rob's question, does the fact that elderly people who may not be as digitally savvy play into it in any way?
Briony: That's an interesting question because elder abuse is usually seen as being within a relationship of trust.
Marta: Righto, yeah.
Briony: So scams and things like that don't occur within a relationship of trust. So when people working in the sector, or people like me doing research on elder abuse, we don't normally think about scams. Even though they probably do happen more often to older people who… especially older people who are cognitively declining and losing their judgment about, you know, when things come in that most people would recognize as a scam, they don't recognize.
It's interesting you ask that question, though, because when I talk to older people about elder abuse they always raise, you know, scams—and so clearly that's in their mind as part of elder abuse, but not something that kind of technically we consider within the definition.
Lyndon: And so for members listening to this podcast, Briony, we've probably got members in potentially all camps. We might have people who are potential victims of elder abuse, but also people you might identify as potential perpetrators, perhaps the younger generation. What are some of the early signs that people might be becoming victims of elder abuse?
Briony: Well, it depends a bit on the type of abuse. In terms of financial elder abuse, there'd be a whole range of different signs. So there'd be things like not being able to pay their bills, but also where they might have belongings missing—jewellery, pieces of art and so on. Seeing unfamiliar or new signatures on documents—that might be something more that a bank might want to pick up. Having significant withdrawals from bank accounts that are unexplained and unexpected. But generally, with elder abuse, you will see some signs of fear or stress or anxiety in the older person.
The other sign is often them being restricted in access to who they can see and who they can make contact with. Because as I said before that's one way that people maintain the abuse in secrecy, is to actually stop the older person from contacting their GP or their friends or other members of the family perhaps, yeah. Some of the things that people need to think about is where they enter into new housing arrangements or financial arrangements, just to be really careful that what they're doing is legal and preferably to have it in writing, I think.
Because things can go wrong on both sides and I think it's really important, especially if the older person is selling their house to move in with family members. I think from both sides those sort of contracts should be in writing. You know—what are the arrangements, what if either party wants to bail out of this agreement.
Some of the research that we've done on elder abuse where we've talked to people who've been abused and sort of what happened next—so these are people who went to Seniors Rights Victoria, which is the main service for people who are experiencing elder abuse in Victoria—what we found was that although the abuse stopped, sometimes some of the other aspects of the situation weren't resolved. And one of the key ones was that they had no recourse to get their money back.
So say they’d come into an agreement with their family that they would sell up their house in return for being able to move in with the family and the family would care for them, and then that didn't happen or went badly. They had no way—because they hadn't signed a contract and actually no one had broken the law—they had no way of getting that money back.
Another common scenario was that they lost contact with the person who was abusing them, or their grandchildren. And one of the issues in elder abuse, which is different to family violence, is that usually the desire is to keep the family together. Often the older person actually wants to keep a relationship with the person who's perpetrating the abuse and their grandchildren. So they want the abuse to stop, but they don't want that relationship to deteriorate. So that's one of the things that stops them from actually seeking help, but is also one of the complexities.
Lyndon: So, Briony, what are some of the key causes of elder abuse? I mean I'm thinking now we're talking a lot about housing affordability and you know all of those sort of pressures that might be on the generation coming through. Are there common causes like that, that sort of kick-off the process even seemingly in a benign kind of way that then snowballs or something like that?
Briony: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. Certainly, housing affordability is a key issue because a common scenario for elder abuse is an adult child moving back in with their parents because they've got some problem. That might be that they've separated from their partner and no longer have somewhere to live or it might be that they've got drug and alcohol problems or gambling problems. They move back in with their parents and even just don't, like, incur bills that they don't contribute towards at the most benign level, through to you know really stealing from their parents to fund their whatever their habit might be.
But as I said earlier, the older people that we've interviewed very much want those problems solved. So they see the abuses being the gambling or the drug and alcohol or the mental health problem and they want that solved so then the abuse will stop.
Marta: Earlier on, Briony, you mentioned that there are state organisations that can help and support and advocate on this behalf, and then there are also some national organisations like the Australian Law Reform Commission who recently did a lot of work in that space. Are there any laws either at a state or federal level that can help protect people from this kind of abuse?
Briony: Yeah, look, definitely. One of the key ones is taking out enduring powers of attorney, which will then, if you become incapable of making decisions in older age, you can then protect you or where you can decide who can make decisions for you and what they can make decisions about. And the Victorian Office of the Public Advocate has just actually produced tips for seniors making enduring powers of attorney. Because of the other issues with these powers of attorney is they can be abused.
So I think it's really important for older people or seniors thinking about their future to actually think about those decisions early, think about who they might trust and think about the qualities of that person. Not only that they trust them but that they're likely to live long enough, that they understand the system themselves, that they have good control over their own finances so that they're likely to be a good person to manage your finances. So there are some really good tips in the documents that they're now producing really to address this problem and it came out of the Australian Law Reform Commission work to some extent.
Lyndon: Briony, one other thing for you know the potential perpetrator cohort and I think we could, Rob, Marta and I could potentially all be in that category as could many of our listeners. What are some the things we should be mindful of in just the way we conduct ourselves if we've got older relatives. Like, just things to be mindful of?
Briony: Well, I think a few things, you know, treat older people with respect and assume capacity rather than incapacity unless there's anything, any reason not to. Yeah, I think it's a more difficult one because I think one of the probably the areas that we need to think about as potential perpetrators is being a carer. So while being a carer doesn't mean you're more likely to abuse an older person, there are scenarios where it is stress within the caring relationship that causes elder abuse.
If you're caring for someone with dementia and they have lost capacity to determine what's day and night and they're up all night and you're sleep deprived, they're asking you the same question over and over again—it's probably quite easy to snap. So I think one of the important things to think about for carers is making sure that they get adequate support. That they're caring for themselves, that they're getting breaks, that they're calling on other family members and friends to also help. You know because it often goes just on one person, the caring role. So I think that's one thing that people more of more of our generation need to be thinking about as we have older parents.
Rob: Briony I just want to ask you, earlier you mentioned how important it is to have a power of attorney and placing someone who you trust in that role. Obviously, there's been some elders who have done that and it's not worked out in their best interest. How has that left the elder emotionally and psychologically? Are they never trusting anyone again?
Briony: The sort of things that happen with powers of attorney is that people use them incorrectly. Well, they either use them in their own interest rather than the older person or they make decisions for the older person when the older person has the capacity, and for example, get them to go into residential care when that wouldn't be their choice. How that leaves the older person is yeah, I guess, devastated that members of their family that they thought they could trust they can't trust. Often quite isolated because the people who surround them and they would rely on to support them, they can’t rely on.
At the same time, usually, it's not everybody in the family. So some of the examples where we interviewed older people who'd experienced abuse, it was actually another family member who got them out of the situation. So I spoke to one lady who had an arrangement with her daughter to move in and be cared for, or just moved in and really move in and share the accommodation, she didn't even really need care. And they just started being really cruel to her, not letting her control her own money. But at the same time not letting her use the washing machine saying that her clothes were really filthy and that she should go down to the laundromat—really awful stuff—and then it was her other daughter who actually got her out of that situation, found her alternative accommodation and so on. So, yeah, just because one family member or carer is behaving in this way doesn't mean everybody is. But certainly, it would challenge your trust of people generally, I think.
Rob: And judgment, yeah.
Briony: Yeah, yeah. And your own judgment, yeah.
Marta: So, Briony, if anything that we've discussed today has raised some concerns for our listeners, what are some resources or organisations that you'd recommend they turn to for some initial help?
Briony: There is an elder abuse helpline in every state and territory. So I mentioned earlier Seniors Rights Victoria, that's the Victorian version. And their phone number, if anyone’s in Victoria, is 1300 368 821. But as I said there's a similar service in every state and territory.
And what they'll do is—they vary a little bit—but they can give you advice if you're concerned about an older person. And if the older person themselves is seeking help, they can provide like a case management service, so supporting them through whatever they need to do, letting them know what their rights are. And if legal intervention is required—in Victoria, anyway—they can also provide lawyers who will directly help the older person sort out the legal issues.
Marta: Oh good. You can check out our show notes for a full listing of those numbers in the other Australian states.
Lyndon: So, Briony, we'll also be having a more in-depth comprehensive chat with you in one of our webcasts that's coming up. For members who are listening to this podcast that will be happening live on Wednesday the 15th of November, so if you would like to hear more from Briony about this topic or even ask Briony a question, go to unisuper.com.au/webcasts to register. If you can't watch the webcast live on the day you can still catch it afterwards, just head to unisuper.com.au/webcasts, that address again, sign up and we will be in touch.
So Briony what would be your top tips if you had to give… let's call it five top tips or three top tips or whatever, what would they be?
Briony; Well, we actually asked older people what their top tips would be when we spoke to these older people who’d experienced abuse, and their top tip was to call Seniors Right Victoria. So they were all people who had had access to that service. So I think the top tip has to be if you're concerned or if you feel that this might be happening to you or someone that you know, call the helpline and get advice as to what you should do.
But they also said things like act early. So they mostly had been worried about what was going on for quite a long time and they hadn't really done anything about it. And they all kind of thought that if they'd done something earlier they might have been able to avoid more financial problems or whatever. And they said, "Don't sell your house, give money or mortgage your home. Hang on to your house, think carefully before you go and live with your children or your in-laws. And take full control of your finances, regardless of what your children promise or what they say they will do." So that's a direct quote that I'm reading there, that's the sort of advice that older people themselves gave other older people.
Rob: That's some good advice, and really good to know that there are support services out there for older members in the community.
Briony one thing I did want to ask, and a bit of change of pace now—sometimes we do like to ask our guests what their ideal retirement would look like. So I just wanted to ask you, we are a super fund, we're very keen to know what your retirement might look like. How do you envisage that?
Briony: Yeah, well, it's not so far away for me. My husband's already retired so it's definitely something I've been thinking about. So retirement is likely to last a long time for our generation. So, I guess I see it in phases, so the first phase I would like to do a lot of travel, you know all that bucket list of things that I've never done before. But mix that with still contributing, so doing volunteer work or perhaps even doing some part-time paid work during that period. Learning new things, learning some of the things that I haven't had a chance to learn.
And then what I talk with my friends about is us designing and building our own retirement living at the end of life which would be intergenerational. So we would have younger people there, perhaps single mums who are looking for work, who might want to care for us. You know we've got a lap pool, we've got a gym, we've got all these things. I know these things cost money, but maybe if we can do it collectively…!
Marta: Where can I sign up for that? [All laugh]
Briony: Well, you'll need to fund it all, I know that, and I know there's a lot of debate around exactly how much that you need. So that's something we've been thinking about—exactly how much do you need? How long do I need to keep working for to fund my retirement? I'm not sure.
Rob: Well, it certainly looks like you'll be keeping active for a fair few years, which is good, it's a good thing to hear. Briony, thank you so much for coming in today and sharing your insights with us about elder abuse, it's obviously a very serious and complex issue. And we hope that you've been able to demystify and help educate our members about this. So, thank you for coming in.
Briony: It's my pleasure.
Lyndon: And that brings us to the end of another episode of Super Informed Radio. A fantastic discussion there, I think, we had with Briony—I personally found that really interesting and enlightening.
Marta: Mmm, it was very compelling as well. Just a reminder about Briony's upcoming webcast on Wednesday the 15th of November. If you'd like to register, go to our website at unisuper.com.au/webcasts to sign up. If you can't catch the webcast on the day, you can still catch up on it afterwards, just head to unisuper.com.au/webcasts. Also, if you'd like to catch up on past episodes of our podcast, just head to unisuper.com.au/podcasts or subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
If you would like we would really appreciate it if you gave us a review or rating as it helps people find the podcast.
Lyndon: Cool. And we'll see you next time.
Marta: See you later.