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General Law
Elder Abuse Cases on the Rise
COVID-19 causes increase in elder abuse cases as social distancing creates a new degree of isolation
Published 09 September
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Many things constitute elder abuse including physical, financial and emotional abuse. With COVID-19 isolating the elderly, elder abuse cases are on the rise. The current pandemic has caused significant financial hardship for many Australians with some looking to relieve their financial stress by taking advantage of those most vulnerable.

Social Isolation

Longstanding research confirms that social isolation is one of the main risk factors for elder abuse. With social distancing measures in place to try to control the spread of COVID-19, this has created a new degree of isolation which can limit opportunities to detect abuse.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies conducted a research survey focussing on life during COVID-19. The survey ran from May 1 to June 9, 2020 and had 7,306 participants from around Australia. What the survey showed was that older people struggled more with staying in touch with others, with just 23% of people over the age of 70 reporting daily contact with their family – almost half that of people under the age of 40 (40%).

Many respondents shared that they were struggling with video calls and new online technologies, with older Australians dependent on face-to-face visits for contact and support.

Financial crisis a major risk factor

In April alone, 129,000 Queenslanders lost their jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, and nationally almost 600,000 jobs were lost.

Financial pressures are a major risk for elder abuse leading to more people exploiting those closest to them. In 2018-2019, the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit (QLD) reported that most common perpetrators were sons and daughters (including in-laws), representing 72.3% of cases reported.

An increasing number of older Australians have access to substantial wealth in the form of superannuation, bank accounts, investments and property, and are being targeting or pressured to relinquish their assets. Or, they are simply having these stolen from underneath them.

The six key risk factors that are considered financial elder abuse, include:

  1. A family member who has a strong sense of entitlement to an older person’s property or possessions. This can often be due to financial pressures being experienced in their own life.
  2. An older person having diminished capacity
  3. An older person being dependent on a family member or carer
  4. A family member having a drug or alcohol problem
  5. An older person feeling frightened by a family member or carer
  6. An older person lacking awareness of his or her own rights and entitlements

The warning signs of financial abuse

Financial exploitation warning signs can include:

  • Significant withdrawals from an older person’s bank accounts
  • Sudden changes in the elder’s financial condition
  • Items or cash missing from the older person’s household
  • Suspicious changes being made to legal documents such as Wills, Power of Attorney, and Titles
  • Financial activity the senior couldn’t have undertaken, such as ATM withdrawals
  • Unnecessary services, goods or subscriptions being purchased using the older person’s bank account

A nationwide investigation into elder abuse in Australia

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Australian Institute of Family Studies announced in 2019 they will be conducting the first large-scale study into the prevalence of elder abuse, with the aim of assessing the nature of abuse and how widespread it is in Australia.

The study is part of the National Plan to Respond to the Abuse of Older Australians 2019-2023, which is a government initiative to combat elder abuse through research, education, prevention and the strengthening of support services and safeguards.

This national plan provides a framework for coordinated action across federal, state and territory governments. In the 2018-2019 Federal Budget, it was announced that $18 million would be provided over four years for national trials of three types of services designed to support the elderly who fall victim to abuse.

On 16 September 2018, the Australian Government announced a Royal Commission into the aged care sector. The Royal Commission is looking at the quality and safety of residential and in-home aged care and will provide a final report by 26 February 2021. The Royal Commission has already received evidence of shocking physical and mental abuse by care workers and some family members and has also revealed disgraceful failures by aged care facility staff and management to properly care for residents prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. The evidence given before the Commission shows systemic failures at both state and federal levels of government and the aged care sector generally.

The more recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Victoria predominantly consists of elderly aged care residents. Victorian aged care facilities have seen an appalling increase in the mortality rates for residents and the horrendous impact this has had on the elderly and their families. Grief-stricken family members are unable to be with their dying relatives to comfort them due to lock down restrictions, and subsequently not being able to attend a normal funeral service.

Significantly, there is no action for “wrongful death” as there is in other western countries. This means that any actions for damages by the residents themselves, or on behalf of their estates, are very limited and in most cases the only actions available to families impacted by their family member’s death would be for diagnosable psychiatric conditions arising from the treatment and/or death of their elderly parent or grandparent. These actions are problematic in the sense that they can be expensive and cause a further layer of distress on family members already suffering significant psychological sequela arising from the circumstances of their relative’s death.

How to protect yourself, or a loved one

These types of offences have always been hidden and under-reported, but with COVID-19 restrictions further isolating the elderly, urgent action is needed to protect their rights. It is important for the community to look out for their older neighbours and loved ones and to look for the tell-tale signs of abuse.

Physical abuse is a police matter and should be reported to the police immediately.

Helplines have reported that calls have gone up dramatically with an estimated 40% increase in the first half of this year, compared to last year.

The elder abuse helpline is available to access at any time to discuss your situation by phoning 1800 ELDERHelp (1800 353 374).

If you are not happy with the care you are receiving, whether that be in your own home or in a care facility, or are experiencing financial abuse, be sure to speak to someone and ask for help. Tell at least one person, be that your doctor, your lawyer, a friend, or a family member in which you trust.

Ensuring your legal documents are in order

Elder people should ensure their financial and legal affairs are in order. An experienced solicitor can help prepare or update all the documents you need.

The Electronic Transactions Amendment (COVID-19) Witnessing of Documents Regulation 2020 (The Regulations) and the Justice Legislation (COVID-19 Emergency Response – Documents and Oaths) Regulations 2020, was introduced this year to allow people to have their Will, Power of Attorney and Appointment of Enduring Guardian documents signed and witnessed by video in the event they are unable to attend the office of their solicitor. This means these are still legally valid documents and can be signed via Zoom, FaceTime, or a similar application in both Queensland and New South Wales.

A Power of Attorney can be one of the most important legal documents you will ever sign. It appoints people to manage your medical and financial affairs in the event you lose capacity. The sad thing is many elderly clients trust their adult children to manage their affairs, and one or a combination of those children can use that Power of Attorney to financially abuse their parent or grandparent.

If you are unhappy with who you have appointed as your Power of Attorney, it is imperative you contact your solicitor to revoke the Power of Attorney as soon as possible.

How can Attwood Marshall Lawyers help?

We believe that lawyers must play a leading role in protecting the interests of the elderly in our community. Attwood Marshall Lawyers has a large client base of elderly clients who reside in the Northern New South Wales and Gold Coast/Brisbane corridor. We are experienced in this area of law and have acted for thousands of clients over many years in these types of disputes. It is certainly an area that is unfortunately growing in the number clients who are affected by this type of abuse. Sometimes it is very difficult for clients to admit that a family member is abusing them either physically and/or financially. Most of our clients feel much better after contacting us and confiding in us that a family member is doing the wrong thing. We can take steps to ensure that you are protected and that your physical and financial safety are looked after.

In many cases, we are required to urgently assist clients in revoking existing enduring powers of attorney and enduring guardian documents. We are often appointed as the client’s attorney in order to assist them in taking control of their own affairs, or alternatively seeking other family members or close friends who might be able to assist in this regard. By contacting our office, we can step in and help. In many cases an application to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) or NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) may be required in order to revoke existing powers of attorney and have independent financial managers, or attorneys, appointed.

We caution clients that in many cases the end result of these types of applications are that your financial management could be handed over to the QLD Public Trust Office or NSW Trustee and Guardian. In some cases, this can result in a worse situation than what you previously had, given the well-documented issues that elderly people and their families suffer as a result of dealing with government instrumentality.

We are often called to attend nursing homes, hospitals and the homes of clients wishing to provide instructions and sign their documents. Luckily, we have one of the largest Wills and Estates departments in Australia and always have available lawyers to urgently attend to these matters. In many cases we can defer our fees or come to a reasonable repayment arrangement to fit in with our client’s budget. If there are recovery proceedings available, we often accept these cases on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis. We offer free initial advice to assess your situation, so please reach out at any time.

We have implemented an approved COVID Safe Plan to ensure our staff and clients wellbeing are a top priority. We continue to offer phone, Skype or FaceTime appointments as an initial form of communication. Subsequent meetings requiring document signing can be conducted following all health protocols in our spacious meeting rooms which are meticulously cleaned and sanitised after every meeting.

Our convenient office locations either side of the QLD/NSW border in Coolangatta and Kingscliff allows our clients to visit whichever office they prefer without having to cross the border. We also have offices at Robina Town Centre and Brisbane City.

Although the current COVID-19 amendments to the laws about signing electronic documents allows this to be done by video, at Attwood Marshall Lawyers we prefer to witness documents face-to-face where possible, as it is important to be in the presence of the person to check their capacity and make sure the document they are signing correctly reflects our client’s instructions. If your preferred method to sign legal documents is to do so electronically by video, we are certainly able to do this.

If you would like to speak to our team today, call any time on 1800 621 071 or email info@attwoodmarshall.com.au

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