Our dirty little secret - abuse of elderly

Elder abuse is gathering attention as the country's quiet crime, and one aged care specialist says not enough is happening to prevent it.

Meg McHugh, a registered nurse with 12 years' experience in aged care, including auditing roles, says New Zealand lags behind in its laws - something she was surprised about in a country that prides itself on its welfare systems.

In Taranaki, 61 cases were reported in the past 10 months and it's believed this doesn't reflect the true size of the issue because, nationally, only about 18 per cent of cases are reported.

McHugh, who moved from the United Kingdom five years ago, now works at Maida Vale retirement village in New Plymouth in an education role.

She says the system in the UK, where complaints are processed and acted on, is more robust than here.

"In the UK they have laws that protect the vulnerable person and look after the vulnerable person.

"Whereas here it's a bit airy-fairy."

This realisation came when McHugh, working at a care facility in Auckland, reported a case of abuse of an elderly woman by her family.

"As soon as Age Concern came in and the family found out, they removed the woman immediately and we knew there was going to be some retribution taken out on her.

"Our concern was that she would probably end up dead within weeks."

Much of the time, abuse can't be proven and a care facility doesn't want to put its neck on the line in case it's wrong - negative press means a drop in the occupancy they need to survive, she says.

"I've walked into facilities where you know something's not right but you can't get any proof of it, which is the most heart-breaking part," she says. "You don't want to leave at the end of the day because you know something bad's going to happen."

McHugh is quick to say Age Concern, the state-funded agency that deals with elder abuse and neglect nationwide, has its place but doesn't have the clout to step in and stop abuse.

"They have no teeth."

The UK's protection service for vulnerable adults has the authority to step in, investigate a complaint and prevent a person from going back to the environment, she says.

Elder abuse can take many forms. Kevin Bromell, the owner of Mobility and More in Hawera, often finds himself caught in family disputes over whether an elderly relative should be spending $3000 on a mobility scooter.

Family members will say, "She doesn't need that, she's all right, she can walk," he says.

"There was one who said she's spending her funeral money."

Bromell is often stuck deciding whether a person still has "enough marbles" to make decisions about their money - a task he's not comfortable taking on.

"I'm not a doctor, I can't tell.

"I don't want to be the hard salesman but I want to provide a service that people want."

He always involves the family in the decision but often an elderly person will say their family's against the decision but they want a scooter anyway, leaving Bromell nervous he'll be pinned as a slippery salesman taking advantage of an old person.

Detective Sergeant David Beattie, New Plymouth's family violence co-ordinator, says a very small proportion of elder abuse happening in the community comes over his desk.

"Its hugely under-reported to police. There's that old-school mentality that what goes on in the home stays in the home."

He says stopping elder abuse meant shifting that mentality, and letting people know it was OK to ask for help.

In Taranaki, cases of elder abuse are referred by family, neighbours and social services to Tui Ora's elder protection co-ordinator Elaine Mossop, the only person in the region specialising in the area.

Mossop says she gets about four calls a day regarding elder abuse and this is the tip of the iceberg - elder abuse is likely the country's most under-reported crime because 80 per cent of the time it's committed by family members.

The complexity of the cases means it's often not as easy as simply removing someone; most of Mossop's time is spent offering advice and education rather than stepping in to stop abuse.

Removal requires gaining a victim's consent, which they may not give because they blame themselves for the abuse, depend on the abuser, or feel ashamed the abuser is a family member.

Mossop says the responsibility to report abuse lies on the shoulders of the whole community. "We can't do anything if we don't know anything."

Being the only specialist for an elder protection agency in the entire province, Mossop is stretched to the limit.

With the country's ageing population, the government will need to step up resourcing to meet the needs of such agencies as Tui Ora, she says.

"We need the funding to manage the numbers we know we're going to get.

"Nothing suggests to me at this stage that there is strategic planning."

Elder abuse is in its infancy in terms of awareness and profile but it's just as serious as domestic and sexual abuse, she says.

Senior Citizens Minister Jo Goodhew says the Government recognises elder abuse as a serious issue, and yesterday launched a year-long campaign encouraging people to protect their futures.

There are 24 elder abuse centres nationwide, with another two set to open in Wairoa and Rotorua, but Goodhew says the public needs to be wary of signs of abuse and report it.

"It's a whole-of-community problem, we can't rely on agencies alone."

The "Protect Your Future" campaign urges New Zealanders to set up an enduring power of attorney (EPA), giving a person or people of their choice the right to make decisions about their property, care and welfare if they lose the ability to do so themselves.

"An EPA also offers protection against financial abuse, which is reported to be the fastest-growing type of elder abuse and neglect."

Goodhew says just 17 per cent of New Zealanders have an EPA, worryingly few given illness can strike anyone at any time.

But McHugh says that might not be the solution.

"Sometimes it's the person with enduring power of attorney who is the abuser."

She says most people in a care facility already have an EPA and those who don't may need to stump up with as much as $2000 to get one.

Part of the Government campaign will be to get law firms involved in giving discounts for EPAs, with 175 firms already on board.

Robyn Scott, chief executive at Age Concern New Zealand, says getting victims to speak up about their experiences is impossible.

She says this is mostly because people don't want to report their families so telling the story isn't often an option - even anonymously.

Abuse is wide-ranging and can be committed by family, caregivers or predators with a financial motive.

In 2004, an elderly man in Inglewood was killed by a gambling addict who befriended him to access his life savings.

One day he visited her to tell her to stop spending his money.

She bludgeoned him with an iron and left his body in the boot of his own car.

In 2012, Lucinda Byrnes stole $7740 from her parents to feed her drug habit, and last year Teresa Bowles, in her 50s, was jailed for stealing more than $20,000 from the 84-year-old uncle who had cared for her as his daughter.

These cases make the headlines for their extremeness or connection with large sums of money, but elder abuse happens more subtly in thousands of New Zealand homes, unreported and unnoticed because, most of the time, it's not even recognised as such.

The Citizens Advice Bureau defines elder abuse as behaviour that causes harm or distress to an older person, by someone who they could reasonably be expected to trust.

It can be a one-time incident or something which occurs repeatedly over time.

Mossop says abuse can stem from children's sense of entitlement - that whatever mum and dad have will pass to them eventually, so why not borrow from them now.

"And there's that sense of expectation that mum and dad will bail me out."

When adult children ask their parents for a loan, the parents should document it legally, she says. "Keeping things transparent is essential."

Taranaki Daily News