Elder abuse is of increasing concern as Australia’s population ages.
In 2021, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released its first major report on dementia since September 2012 finding more than 400,000 people are currently living with dementia. That number is expected to jump to 850,000 by 2058 as our population ages, unless a major cure is found.
Meanwhile the problem of elder abuse is of increasing concern as Australia’s population ages. By 2050 just over a fifth of the population is projected to be over 65 and those over 85 will represent 5% of the population. As a result, more older Australians are falling victim to financial, physical or emotional abuse, neglect or exploitation by dubious service providers purporting to be professional or tradespeople.
Planning for incapacity
With these concerning trends on the rise, all Australians should have a proper estate plan in place, according to Equity Trustees. Most of us put a great deal of thought into how we would like our assets to be distributed after we are gone but less time and effort goes into planning for end-of- life care.
Setting out what type of care you would like and sharing these wishes with your loved ones can provide a great degree of comfort should you become incapable of making your own decisions due to dementia or some other debilitating disease the future. As such Advance Care Directives are an often-overlooked part of the estate planning process.
Sometimes known as a ‘living will’, an Advance Care Directive is a legal document that formally records your wishes for future medical and health care. It can include a wide variety of information, from your preferred living arrangements to medical treatment, palliative care, life support and organ donation.
An Advance Care Directive has different names and meanings in each state and territory in Australia. Equity Trustees recommends that everyone considers having a living will in place. This should be reviewed regularly, particularly if there is a change in your health, personal or living situation.
Protecting against elder abuse
Similarly, a living will can help protect you or your loved once against the horrifying prospect of elder abuse. No one likes to think they (or someone they love) will ever be a victim in this way. To safeguard against this frightening scenario, all Australians can act well before there is a possibility of losing capacity, according to Equity Trustees.
Trustee companies were established with the purpose of taking care of people who couldn’t take care of themselves – usually in relation to financial affairs. Over time, being a trustee has come to mean ensuring broader care is in place depending on a client's needs. Equity Trustees now protects the interests of and supports Australians who have lost capacity due to age, disease or injury. Almost always, these plans have been put in place well before they were needed – and sometimes in the hope they never would be.
Equity Trustees has direct experience of stepping in to either stop, or claw back, money being scammed from some of our most vulnerable clients by fake tradespeople and involving police in those matters. The financial loss is serious – but worse is the impact it has on the confidence of people – particularly those who have worked hard to maintain independence in their own homes.
Nominating an attorney and guardian
Planning to help with the case of dementia or elder abuse should include some fairly straightforward estate planning documents including an Enduring Power of Attorney and Appointment of Enduring Guardian.
Nominating an attorney and guardian who can make legal, financial and lifestyle decisions on your behalf is a key part of this process says Equity Trustees. While a child may seem like the natural choice, they are not always the right choice – particularly if you don't always see eye to eye. Your attorney should be someone who you consider to be 100% reliable and trustworthy. This could be a family member or someone outside the family such as a family friend or professional
A professional attorney will be on the lookout for any decline in your capacity over time and can watch for any signs of financial abuse, for example by checking your accounts for any changes in spending patterns. Specialist attorneys, such as the team at Equity Trustees can also help with other services, such as providing regular check ins and organising in-home care services.
Being aware of the signals
Aside from having the right documentation in place, being aware of certain signs and conditions can help stop vulnerable people experiencing abuse or ease some of the unfortunate effects of dementia.
For example, elderly people who are isolated not only have limited opportunities to interact with others but are more vulnerable to elder abuse. The solution here could be as simple as finding a friendly local taxi or Uber driver to provide transport to shops or regular activities. It’s worth getting to know the services and charities in your area that cater to older people. This could be a social group that offers transport or charities which are focused on tackling isolation in the elderly.
Signs of abuse
Being aware of the signs of elder abuse is also important for family members or carers of an older person. Someone who is being mistreated may suddenly behave differently, avoid leaving their home or appear quieter or more anxious than usual. There may be changes in their physical appearance, such as a lack of grooming or unexplained bruises or fractures.
Financial abuse, where an older person has their funds improperly or illegally accessed, is one of the most common types of elder abuse, so family members should be on the lookout for any financial inconsistencies. For example, watch for irregularities on bank accounts or credit cards, large sums of money or assets being transferred, the person being asked to guarantee loans or mortgages on someone else's behalf or signs they have taken up a product or service they usually don’t use.
Speaking up is critical. If you are an older Australian who is unhappy with the care you are receiving, don’t be afraid to say something and let a trusted person know the situation. Friends and family of an elderly person should also be aware that many cases of elder abuse are hidden and go unreported, often due to fear or reprisals or because the abuser is a family member.
Offering help and taking responsibility
We all have a responsibility to advocate for older people if they are unable or unwilling to speak for themselves. If you suspect abuse is taking place or a person is on the decline due to suspected dementia, raise the alarm with a community group, contact a lawyer or, if a criminal act is suspected, get in touch with the police. While these situations can raise complex social and legal issues, calling them out is essential and shows your loved one that help is at hand.
For more information on Estate Planning please contact Equity Trustees here.
If you or someone you know is experiencing or has experienced elder abuse, here are some helpful links. The below resources contain helplines, videos that can help you identify signs of elder abuse and resources available in different languages.
Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care – Elder abuse phone line
Australian Human Rights Commission - Elder abuse information, including resources in 20 languages
Australian Government Attorney's General's Department - Helpline and information about elder abuse
Victoria Police - Elder abuse information, advice and contact details
NSW Department of Communities and Justice – Ageing and Disability Abuse Helpline and information about elder abuse
NSW Ageing and Disability Commission – Helpline and contact information
QLD Elder Abuse Prevention Unit - Helpline and information about elder abuse
Footnotes: Dementia in Australia, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, September 2021