Elderly women deserve their age of respect

Something remarkable is afoot. The Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police, Ken Lay, and the Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, are talking publicly about male attitudes towards women. On the Victorian Police website, Ken Lay suggests that “our culture is filled with men who hold an indecent sense of entitlement towards women”.

Ken Lay and David Morrison are both middle-aged men in charge of organisations with masculine cultures. They are not your typical feminists. Although many men treat women respectfully, these men go one step further by viewing social issues through ‘gender goggles’. It is a giant step.

Gender goggles are illuminating. They bring into clear focus the fact that a person’s gender influences attitudes and behaviours towards them. Gender goggles highlight issues for women such as discrimination, human rights abuses, domestic violence, rape, glass ceilings, inadequate childcare, political underrepresentation, catcalling, bullying and financial disadvantage such as unfair pay and unequal superannuation.

Unlike rose coloured glasses and beer goggles that provide optimistic perceptions, gender goggles are not a frivolous fashion accessory. Ken Lay’s gender goggles enable him to see that some people perceive women as “less valuable than men”. This perception applies to women of all ages, including older women.

When gender goggles are applied to older women, particularly women who have not been the family’s breadwinner, they may show the humiliation of financial elder abuse. Studies confirm that financial abuse is the most common, and fastest-growing, type of abuse of older women.

Research shows that women over the age of 80 are most at risk of financial elder abuse. This research found that adult sons are the most common perpetrators. Some adult sons assume that money that was once ‘Mum and Dad’s money’ is now their money, even though their mothers are alive and well. They make assumptions that devalue the rights of their mothers.

There have been several high profile trust fund disputes in which sons have sued their mothers. A former pupil of a private boys school in Sydney sued his mother after the family estate was left to his mother rather than to him. This ‘old boy’ was castigated by Justice Michael Pembroke for having a ”highly developed and unhealthy sense of entitlement”.

According to the Office of the Public Advocate, older women are more likely to be declared legally incapable than older men. This may be due to the fact that women live longer than men. It may also suggest that older men are revered whilst older women are infantilised. This was certainly the case in Julie’s family.

Julie is a middle-aged woman with five older brothers. With unseemly haste, a few days after her father’s death, a GP was asked to declare Julie’s elderly mother legally incapable. That she was bewildered, grieving and in the first weeks of widowhood after 50 years of marriage did not seem to have been taken into account.

After Julie’s mother was declared legally incapable, the youngest son became her financial power of attorney. Tony’s job was to manage his mother’s estate in her best interest. Determining what was in his mother’s best interest was contested. Was it in their mother’s best interest to keep money in the bank and continue to pay tax? Or should the children receive an early inheritance? Questions such as these divided Julie’s siblings.

The eldest son, Christopher, organised frequent financial family planning meetings. Christopher was planning his own retirement and unashamedly cast his eyes towards the Bank of Mum rather than towards his own financial planning. Julie questioned why these meetings were not convened prior to her father’s death, particularly when their father’s cognitive status was diminishing. Her question fell on deaf ears.

Tony prepared a financial spreadsheet describing ‘Mum’s assets’, sharing this spreadsheet amongst his siblings. Would a financial spreadsheet with “Dad’s assets” have been shared in the same way if their mother had died first? Of course not.

Then came the zinger. Julie was told that her mother’s monthly expenses were excessive. Julie’s sister-in-law explained to her: “Your brothers are worried about their inheritance. What’s wrong with that?” Gob-smacking stuff.

Julie went into full feminist flight to show her brothers, their wives and anyone else who would listen exactly what was wrong. She defended her mother’s right to spend her own money. Julie argued that their father would have wanted his wife to have as much lemon squash, cheddar cheese, milk chocolate and shortbread biscuits as she wants.

Two brothers supported her; the other three bunkered down, ensconced in their men’s club with others who share their views. These brothers refused to engage with Julie. They simply dismissed Julie’s views as offensive, describing her as mad and bad, as powerful men often do.

Julie’s gender goggles gave her clarity. On every issue, she asked her brothers a simple question: “Would you have treated our father like this?” However, her three older brothers had stopped listening years ago.

Perhaps Julie’s brothers will listen to The Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police and the Chief of the Australian Army talking about men’s sense of entitlement. Men with gender goggles may be easier on their ears.

Kathleen Brasher and Sarah Russell*

Published in The Age

(*Sarah was not named as an author because she did not want to embarrass her family)



The problem of parental plunder

Australians are living longer and living richer than at any time. While some older people are enjoying their wealth – travelling the world, their luggage broadcasting that they are ”spending their children’s inheritance” – others live in aged care facilities, with their children keeping their eyes peeled on the ”Bank of Mum and Dad”.

As economic conditions worsen, this second group is at greater risk than ever of being financially abused. And research has found that adult children, particularly sons, are the most common perpetrators.

State Trustees Victoria has recorded a spike in the numbers of
older Victorians who are financially abused as well as the
amount of money involved. A research paper it commissioned,
For Love or Money: Intergenerational management of older
Victorians’ assets, found that women over the age of 80 are
most at risk of financial elder abuse, often by someone in a position of trust – their children.

Children with ”early inheritance syndrome” feel a sense of entitlement to their parents’ assets. They are not prepared to wait until their parents die. These impatient children seek ways for their parents to ”gift” them money, or interfere in the management of their parents’ assets to protect what they see as their entitlement.

Financial elder abuse involves taking or misusing an older person’s money, property or assets. It also includes persuading an older person to change their will through deception or undue influence.

Financial elder abuse may begin with the best intentions – with an elderly parent asking a child to act as their power of attorney and thereby manage their finances. This can quickly progress to a sense of entitlement, particularly when adult children have mortgages or debts. They often justify their actions by saying: ”Mum doesn’t need money now, and it’s going to be mine anyway.”

Studies confirm that financial abuse is the most common, and fastest-growing, type of abuse of older people. The most vulnerable include those with diminished capacity due to dementia and depression, and older people who rely on others to manage their finances. However, there is little reliable data on its extent. It is often a silent crime – unreported, unacknowledged.

Earlier this year the banking industry tried to raise awareness of financial elder abuse by announcing initiatives to help prevent this silent crime. But like all silent crimes perpetrated mostly on women – domestic violence, sexual assault, bullying – financial abuse will be difficult to police.

Children with early inheritance syndrome often make ageist and sexist assumptions that devalue the rights of their elderly parents. A common one is that older people, particularly women who have not been the family’s breadwinner, find discussions about financial issues complex and stressful. Not only is this patronising but also it disempowers older women. Another is that having a large amount of money does not improve an older person’s quality of life. Most of us take comfort in the security of having savings. Why would older people be any different? The generation that experienced the Depression may take even more comfort from having a safety net than their children.

The third assumption is that a parent is no worse off after gifting money to their children. This is absurd. The less money they have, the less able they are to make decisions about how their money is spent.

Reducing an older person’s income also reduces fees at an aged care facility – helpful for beneficiaries, but older people may appreciate the care they receive from staff at the facility. They may feel an aged care facility that provides daily care deserves their money more than children who visit infrequently with flowers and chocolates.

The final assumption is that an older person’s current will is their final one. Most people change their wills throughout their lives as circumstances change. Why would older people be different? After spending several years in an aged care facility, parents may change their mind about who should receive their money. They may once have wanted their assets shared equally among their children. But later in life, when their children are financially secure, some older people may prefer to give money to Doctors without Borders, The Lost Dogs Home, or even a kind nurse at the aged care facility. This is surely their decision, not their children’s.

As the vulnerability of older people increases, their dependence on family members also increases. Often they do not want to say ”No” to their children’s requests for money or asset transfers for fear of upsetting these relationships. Sadly, at a time when they most need their children’s love and support, the love of money can trump a person’s love for mum or dad.

Philomena Horsley and Sarah Russell*

*Sarah was not named as an author because she did not want to embarrass her family