A smiling carer chats with an elderly lady

Abuse of the elderly: a growing problem

Abuse in a domestic setting is a problem across all age groups in society, but some people are more likely to be abused than others and statistics show that the likelihood of abuse increases significantly in older age.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) reports that in 2012-13, 62% of all referrals to Local Authority Adult Safeguarding teams involved abuse against adults aged over 65. This is a growing problem with Councils reporting a 20% increase in referrals over the previous year.

While there has, rightly, been a great deal of attention paid to reports of abuse in care settings, the HSCIC statistics show that marginally more referrals concerned abuse in a domestic setting.

Increasing age often makes people more vulnerable as they experience physical and mental problems, sometimes becoming more isolated from society and more dependent on others to meet their daily living needs. Sadly, the statistics indicate that, in some cases, the people who the older person might have expected to trust, are taking advantage of that dependence.

What is abuse?

The World Health Organisation definition of abuse, as formulated by the charity “Action on Elder Abuse” is:

‘A single or repeated act or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person’.

Abuse can take a number of forms and can be emotional, sexual, physical or financial. Financial abuse is a problem across all age groups, but when people become older the potential for financial abuse increases as they may become more reliant on others to help them with their financial affairs or even to shop for them. Calls to the Action on Elder Abuse helpline in 2013 recorded that more than £6 million was reported as stolen, defrauded or coerced from elderly victims. This staggering sum comprised non-property assets only and reaches even higher levels when misappropriated property assets are taken into account. The majority of the victims were women aged over 75 and many of the abusers were close relatives. Adult children tried to justify their actions on the basis that they were receiving their inheritance a little earlier than might otherwise be the case.

How can financial abuse be prevented?

If you are still in charge of your affairs and are simply being assisted in matters such as shopping, Age UK suggests a number of simple, easy to implement safeguards, such as making sure that your PIN number and passwords to any accounts are kept secret. They also advise elderly people to remain on top of their financial affairs, check statements regularly, and not to sign blank cheques at any time.

It is important to continue to exercise the type of safeguards that you would probably have taken when you were younger and to accept help but within clearly defined limits. It might be helpful to have a professional involved to some extent in your affairs. For example, if your Tax Return is being prepared by a professional he or she will be alerted to any major, unexplained changes to your finances.

If you are unable to deal with your finances at all, or anticipate that this might happen in the future, then think very carefully about the identity of the attorneys you appoint under a Lasting Power of Attorney. It is better to have more than one attorney and you can direct that they have to act jointly, or jointly in respect of certain matters, so that each acts as a safeguard for the other. For example, Violet appoints her two nieces to be her attorneys. She consults her solicitor and, as a result, appoints her nieces jointly and severally in respect of most matters but provides that if a sale of her house has to take place then they have to act jointly. She also provides that they should produce yearly accounts and have them checked by her solicitor.

If you do not have suitable people to act as your attorney then a professional attorney such as a solicitor can be appointed and might in some cases be the safest choice.

What to do if you are a victim of abuse or suspect someone is being abused?

Help is available from a number of sources: Action on Elder Abuse supports a free 24 hour helpline for the elderly, Silver Line; Age UK also offers a telephone advice service. A referral can be made to the Vulnerable Adults team in the Social Services department of the relevant local authority and, if the elderly person is living in a care home, the Care Quality Commission can be called directly. Your GP, care worker or the police are also people to whom you can turn.

Useful telephone numbers:

Silver Line: 0800 4708090

Age UK Advice: 0800 1696565

Care Quality Commission: 03000 61 61 61.

Choose the route with which you feel most comfortable but do take action as soon as possible. If you would like to discuss any of these issues please contact a member of our Court of Protection team.