Understanding elder abuse can help practitioners protect their clients

The most common form of elder abuse involves money.

Crimes against older people often make sensationalist front-page news. What kind of reprobate would harm the elderly? It's less likely to be reported, but it may well be a member of their family or someone they trust.

Elder abuse is any behaviour or action within a relationship of trust that harms an older person. It includes financial, psychological, physical, sexual, social abuse and neglect.

The most common form of elder abuse involves money.

"If someone steals from an older person who they've never met, we would call it a crime. If it's their child, it's called elder abuse," says Sue Hendy, CEO of the Council on the Ageing (COTA), the peak national organisation representing the rights and interests of older Australians.

"For some reason, perhaps because it's family, we don't actually see it as a crime."

Financial abuse isn't necessarily outright theft. A daughter might use her parents' money to buy a new car because she takes them to the doctor each day. Or a son might may put pressure on his mother to relinquish financial control if he believes he is entitled to it now.

"We call this inheritance greed," says Sue Marshall, general manager of Victoria Plus, a workforce development division of Victoria University that implements training programs in areas such as elder abuse.

"Mums and dads are living a lot longer now." 

Related: It's your funeral - An investigation of death care and the funeral industry in Australia (PDF)

Marshall says accountants can play an important role in protecting their clients from elder abuse.

"It's about knowing seniors' rights exist and being able to refer someone to an appropriate agency for help. It's also about accountants accessing these services to ask questions," she says.

Accountants should be sensitive to change in a client's behaviour or financial situation.

"Signs to look for include a client wanting to transfer assets unexpectedly, or if they are always accompanied by a family member to appointments, which may prevent honest conversations," advises Hendy.

Accountants should also consider that family relationships change.

"You shouldn't just assume because it's a familial relationship that everything will always be the same," adds Marshall.

"Relationships and households can break down. If it was a business relationship, people in professions like accounting would ensure that certain safeguards were put in place."

Finance professionals must also think about conflicts of interest.

"If an accountant is representing an older person and someone else in their family, is this independent advice? Consider who your client is – the older person or the potential abuser?" says Marshall.

"With family businesses and rural properties, we often see Mum and Dad staying on as directors of the business. It's then about ensuring that the accountant is giving them the advice as to the 'what ifs'," she adds.

More tools on recognising and preventing financial abuse

"With their assets tied up in the business, their future security is vulnerable.

"I have quite robust discussions about this with accountants who say, 'Well, they're all my clients'," says Marshall.

"But who should be advising the retiring couple?

"Again it comes back to basic principles. Who is your client and what kind of independent information do they need to make the best decision? They might say that they are happy to sign everything over to their son, but at least the accountant has done the right thing."

For more resources go to www.myagedcare.gov.au

Read next: Financial abuse of the elderly: what accountants can do

October 2021
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