Money crimes on elderly under spotlight

ROB STOCK
Last updated 05:00 15/06/2014
jo goodhew
DEAN KOZANIC/ Fairfax NZ
Jo Goodhew

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A study to find out how prevalent elder abuse is in New Zealand is on the cards, including delving into the murky world of financial elder abuse.

This week is Elder Abuse Awareness Week, an internationally co-ordinated attempt to highlight the plights of some older people, often at the hands of their own family members. More than half of the problems involve financial abuse.

While the UK and the US, where famous actor Mickey Rooney did much to raise awareness before his death earlier this year, have funded research projects to establish how big the problem is, New Zealand lags behind.

Robyn Scott, chief executive of Age Concern, which is Government-funded to provide an elder abuse and neglect prevention service nationwide, gets an average of eight referrals each working day. "We have over 2000 referrals come to us every year, but we think it is just the tip of the iceberg," she said.

The news comes as Senior Citizens Minister Jo Goodhew prepares to announce an updating of the laws governing powers of attorney (PoA) designed to make it harder for them to be abused.

PoAs are documents often created by older people to give powers to others, often family members, to act in their interests when they become incapable of doing so.

PoAs come in two kinds: personal care and welfare, and property. The first empowers the attorney to make decisions on care and welfare issues. The second on financial matters.

Following an outcry over the abuse of PoAs, a 2007 law change required attorneys to act in the interests of the donor and not to personally benefit, unless the PoA allowed it. Records of financial transactions had to be kept.

But those changes haven't ended problems with PoAs, although these generally happen behind a wall of silence because the victims are unable or unwilling to speak up.

And when financial abuse happens, inevitably records have not been kept, making prosecutions hard and rare.

A third of all cases seen by Age Concern involve PoA abuse.

One case this year involved an elderly widow with dementia, living in her own home with her daughter and family. The daughter was the attorney and would not let her mother go into care. Another concerned family member called Age Concern, which found the woman dehydrated and unwell, in a soiled bed in a cold back room.

The woman was moved into care, the courts removed the daughter as attorney, and, Age Concern said, she was displeased to lose her "home" and see her "future inheritance" dwindling to pay for her mother's care.

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Prompted by continuing concerns over abuse of PoAs, the Ministry of Social Development did a review last year. It found the majority of attorneys knew their duties, but 38 per cent of respondents felt the 2007 changes didn't go far enough. A further 44 per cent said they were aware of PoA abuse and 75 per cent of those who worked in the health and disability sector had seen difficulties with PoAs set up after the 2007 law change.

The changes Goodhew will announce this week include a law change making it "clear to attorneys that they cannot act contrary to donors' advance directives". This should give donors greater confidence their wishes will be followed should they become incapable of making decisions for themselves. There will also be an education campaign to raise awareness of the legal duties of attorneys, as well as trying to encourage more people to put them in place when they do their wills.

The 2007 law changes made EPAs more expensive and Goodhew will seek ways to reduce the cost, including simplifying legal forms and making some witness requirements less onerous.

Some had called for a central registry of EPAs, but Goodhew rejected this as too costly.

- Sunday Star Times

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