Rising numbers of elderly Kiwis ripped off by family are just the 'tip of the iceberg'

Increasing numbers of adult children are swindling their elderly family members out of thousands of dollars and agencies fear there are many more elder-abuse victims suffering in silence.

When an elderly woman moved into a Canterbury rest home, members of her family took her debit card and cleared out her bank account.

In a similar case, a son who had power of attorney over his elderly mother's property and finances, failed to pay her rest-home costs and there was no money left in her accounts.

The rest home was left with unpaid costs totalling tens of thousands of dollars.

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Age Concern Canterbury received up to eight elder-abuse allegation referrals every week, said the charity's social worker Trina Cox. These were some of the more than 2,000 Age Concern received nationally every year. 

Cox feared the numbers would continue to worsen as New Zealand's population aged.

"It is absolutely on the rise and we see that in the numbers that are coming through the referral service," she said.

In another case, a woman was pressured to stay in her home by her daughter, despite needing full-time residential care because of serious health issues.

"Her daughter wanted to maintain control of her mother's finances and continue to access money from her mother's account," Cox said. 

"Even after the woman finally moved into care, her daughter continued to pressure her for money, even resorting to getting the bank to call the older woman in the rest home to ask for her permission to transfer money into her daughter's account."

Age Concern figures revealed more than three quarters of alleged abusers were family members and more than half of the alleged abusers were adult children or grandchildren. The alleged abusers were as likely to be female as male.

Cox said the reported cases were the "tip of the iceberg" and many more were flying under the radar.

"We need to remember that our older people have lived full and purposeful lives. Just because they are older or in need of care does not mean that their decisions or aspirations don't matter.

"We need to respect that they wish to remain in control of their lives as much as we would want to. At the heart of nearly all elder abuse is a lack of respect for the older person."

Cox said Age Concern worked with police in severe cases, but elderly victims were often reluctant to take any action if the perpetrators were family.

Police integrated safety response to family violence executive manager Leanne McSkimming said she had no doubt there would be a lot of unreported family-harm incidents involving the elderly.

The number of victims increased as the age-groups advanced, she said. 

Burwood Hospital social work clinical manager Patrick Doyle said inpatient and community teams were dealing with far more cases of elder abuse, including financial, than they used to.

"We noticed an increase post earthquakes. It hasn't stopped at all. In some ways it's kept increasing." 

In any week, the service could have up to six new cases.

"We will continue to screen people who come into hospitals … but we don't pick everything up. All abuse has an element of secrecy about it if it's been going on for some time."

"Members of the public have a duty to each other. If they feel there is something that is really bad, obviously they can ring Age Concern … even the police."

Elder Abuse Awareness Week runs until June 22.

 - Stuff