14 June 2019
The United Nations (UN) has designated today (15 June) as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. The types of abuse to be aware of include financial, physical, sexual, social, psychological and emotional abuse. Financial abuse appears to be the most common.
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 homes, 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. Financial 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.
Research has identified adult children, particularly sons, as the most common perpetrators of financial abuse. The victims are often women over the age of 80. Like other crimes perpetrated mostly on women – domestic violence and sexual assault – financial abuse is often a silent crime, unreported and unacknowledged. As a result, there is little reliable data on its extent.
The most vulnerable include older women with diminished capacity due to dementia and depression. 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 four older brothers who were all educated at elite private schools and have had successful careers. 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 64 years of marriage was not taken into account.
After Julie’s mother was declared legally incapable, the youngest son, Tony*, became her financial power of attorney. Without any guidelines to help him manage his mother’s money in an ethical manner, Tony recommended his mother gift some of her money to her children. This gift would help his siblings with mortgages and other debts. “Mum doesn’t need this money and it’s going to be ours soon anyway”.
Julie was horrified. Should middle-aged men who all have professional jobs with decent salaries rely on inherited money to help them with loans they chose to take out to support their lifestyles? Julie told her brothers they had ‘early inheritance syndrome’.
Adele Horin coined the phrase ‘early inheritance syndrome’ to describe children with a sense of entitlement to their parents’ assets. These impatient children are not prepared to wait until their parents die. Children with ‘early inheritance syndrome’ often make ageist and sexist assumptions that devalue the rights of their elderly parents.
Tony assumed his mother, who had not been the family’s breadwinner, would find discussions about financial issues complex and stressful. He arranged family meetings to discuss ‘the family estate’ without his mother present. This was not only patronising it also disempowered his mother.
Julie’s eldest brother told his siblings he was planning his retirement. He unashamedly cast his eyes towards the Bank of Mum. Without blinking, he requested regular spreadsheets of his mother’s expenses so he could know his “financial position”. He assumed what was once ‘Mum and Dad’s money’ was now his money, not his mothers’ money.
There have been several legal disputes in which sons have sued their mothers over a ‘family estate’. In one case, a former pupil of a private boys school took legal action after the family estate was left to his mother rather than to him. The judge castigated him for having a “highly developed and unhealthy sense of entitlement“.
This gendered sense of entitlement is reminiscent of the Victorian era. In those days, a wife became her husband’s property, his chattel. A married woman could neither own property in her own name nor control her own money. The laws changed over a hundred years ago. Thankfully so too did attitudes towards married women. Older women may be the last bastion of Victorian traditions.
Soon after Julie’s mother’s 90th birthday party, three brothers complained that their mother’s monthly expenses were “excessive”. They wanted Julie to curtail these expenses. They also wanted to restrict their mother’s visits to her beloved beach house. Julie’s sister-in-law explained: “Your brothers are worried about their inheritance. What’s wrong with that?”
Julie defended her mother’s right to spend her own money. One brother supported her; the other three bunkered down, ensconced with others who shared their privileged 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.
The financial abuse of older women is on a continuum of violence towards women. It should be a criminal offence. For financial abuse of older people to become a criminal offence, attitudes towards older people, particularly older women, need to change.