Ripping off the elderly on rise

ASHLEIGH STEWART
Last updated 09:23 15/02/2014

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Fairfax Media received an overwhelming response this week to a story focusing on the rise of financial elder abuse in New Zealand. ASHLEIGH STEWART talks to people who have been affected.

It started with the odd litre of milk.

Then large sums of money began to trickle out of his account. After a while, a man once trusted by his elderly neighbour was entering his house under the guise of borrowing the phone, and instead was stealing his eftpos card and running down to the bank.

It is stories like these that are behind an exponential rise in the financial abuse of New Zealand's elderly. National Age Concern figures show reported referrals of financial elder abuse almost doubled from 1100 in the 2010/2011 financial year to about 2000 in 2012/13.

Taranaki man Christian, 74, says he was financially abused over about five years by a new neighbour who he entrusted with his eftpos card to run errands.

"It started off when he'd come in and say he bought a bottle of milk, and he hoped I didn't mind. I thought: He's doing things for me and it's only a litre of milk, fair's fair."

One day a few months later, Christian went to use his card. It declined.

Initially, the man admitted he took the money and promised to pay it back. But a couple of months later it happened again.

"He'd come in and say he was borrowing the phone. While I was showering he would steal my cashflow card and go to the bank, come back in and say he was just bringing the phone back and put it back."

After Christian found out, he went to the police and the man was arrested. The man served a six-month home detention sentence, and was believed to have taken up to $10,000, New Plymouth police said.

"I don't believe I've had a proper night's sleep ever since - you're always waiting for a knock on the window."

Age Concern Canterbury chief executive Simon Templeton last week told Fairfax problems lay with predatory non-family members moving in with elderly people, using their finances to fund their own lives or being made beneficiaries in a will.

Some countries have imposed restrictions on the amount a person can leave to someone outside of their family in a will to curb financial abuse. New Zealand does not impose any restrictions, but jilted family members can contest a will in court.

Perhaps then, it may be unsurprising that the large majority of elder abuse cases occur within the family.

Templeton said about 75 per cent of cases reported to Age Concern were linked to relatives.

Former Meals on Wheels employee Gaynor witnessed prolific elder abuse.

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In one instance she received a puzzled call from the doctor of a client, who was rapidly losing weight despite being a recipient of the meal service.

"Then one day I was late to her house, and preparing the meal in the kitchen . . . I heard this voice call out 'Mum, is the meal here yet?'. Her son was going there every day and eating her one main meal."

She had also observed elderly people hiding their wallets away from the prying hands of their family and household items going missing after family members had been to visit.

Christchurch-based elder law specialist Kris Wooles said the door to extortion had been left open by a busy society often "disengaged with the wellbeing of their elderly family members".

"It's a demographic of a rather dysfunctional society which is broken up and older people are left to fend for themselves.

"These people are dependent on friends, neighbours and relatives to keep them going."

As people got older they were "less inclined" to deal with money and assets, leaving them susceptible and vulnerable to being taken advantage of', he said.

"You get extreme cases of abuse where somebody is just pinching money for their own purposes and then there's always cases where things are filtered away here and there from Mum and Dad."

Elderly people in New Zealand were often treated as "liabilities to be managed", rather than assuming the same high status they did in other cultures.

Wooles said the problem was not legislative, and the solution lay solely within society.

"Children have to take responsibility for their parents."

- The Press

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