A common misconception about elder abuse is that it is intentional. Another misconception is that it is apparent to those in the lives of an abused senior. Often, elder abuse is neither intentional nor apparent. So then, what is elder abuse and how can it be identified?
Elder abuse may be physical, emotional or financial. It may be overt or neglectful. Financially, it may be through theft or conversion of assets, or through misguided frugalness.
We should all be observant of the physical condition of the seniors in our lives. Injuries seeming to have easy explanations should not occur too frequently. Repeated injuries may be evidence not only of abuse, but of an underlying medical condition or of a living arrangement that is no longer suitable. When living arrangements are no longer suitable or medical needs go unattended, a lengthy delay in moderating a senior’s circumstances could indicate neglect.
In my estate planning practice, I meet with clients at various stages in their lives. As clients age, I often notice an increased isolation in their lives. It is important to remember that isolation can leave our aging loved ones vulnerable. A loved one who becomes increasingly generous with family, friends and caregivers, may be responding to loneliness. Accepting valuable gifts under these circumstances may be inappropriate. The question to ask is whether the senior in question believes you would still spend time with them if they did not generously provide you with such gifts.
Most clients who ask me about elder abuse are specifically interested in financial abuse. This most often arises in the context of a person who holds a Power of Attorney or who has been added as a joint account holder. Although there are factors considered at court to determine whether a joint account is truly the property of both account holders or whether one of them is the agent of the other, naming another person jointly on accounts is not advisable if the goal is to permit that person to assist with bill payments and routine purchases, as it leaves room for doubt as to ownership of funds.
A Power of Attorney document appoints someone who very clearly has a fiduciary relationship with the person who appointed them. This means they must always act in that person’s best interest, without regard to their own interests. Obvious violations of this trust include direct theft from accounts or purchasing expensive gifts for themselves on behalf of the senior. However, an example of abuse not often identified by others in a senior’s life is where money is saved rather than being spent on improving a senior’s final years.
Certainly, an attorney must not be spendthrift with a senior’s money. But where a savings account, RIF or other assets exist, utilizing those assets to provide a higher standard of living to a senior should be considered. Saving money to ensure a sizeable estate is a form of abuse that often goes undetected; it is also a form of abuse that is often unintentional.
This article serves as only a brief overview of an important issue. Additional resources are available at www.seniors.gc.ca.