National commission important step towards preventing elder abuse

You’re a loving daughter whose mother recently passed away. You cared for her deeply, took her shopping and to appointments, cooked and cleaned for her each week, and assisted in any other way she requested, particularly in her later years. Yet you’ve just discovered upon reading her last Will and testament that she transferred ownership of her house to your brother a few years before she died. Why would she do that?

This is one of the many elder abuse scenarios I am confronted with all too often in my work as a wills disputes lawyer.

Luckily, the courts have been willing to scrutinise questionable property transactions such as this from a parent to a child. But legal proceedings, which are sometimes required, can be expensive, time consuming and not without their associated risks.

Then there’s the common example of a child who has power of attorney for a parent, who goes rogue and starts helping themselves to their folks’ money. Unfortunately, once the money has been spent, it can be very difficult to recover it, if at all, to be shared evenly among the spender’s siblings.

This is why I strongly believe that the Federal Government’s recent decision to introduce a national independent Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission is a positive step towards reducing elder abuse in our community.

The Commission has been established in response to the Carnell-Patterson Review into failures at South Australia’s Oakden Older Persons Mental Health Service. It follows damning findings by South Australia’s Chief Psychiatrist Dr Aaron Groves who said Oakden was “more like a mental institution from the middle of last century” than a modern older person’s mental health facility, with evidence of elderly residents with dementia being overmedicated, mistreated and inappropriately restrained.

The new agency will also have a Serious Incident Response Scheme, which will be set up to handle reports of elder abuse in addition to breaches of standards and other problem areas such as disease outbreaks.

Any proactive steps to reduce the incidence of elder abuse have got to be a good thing. Far too often, lawyers like me are asked to assist family members after the fact. And all too frequently, the repercussions for the offenders are minor at best.

A recent study by the National Ageing Research Institute, commissioned by Senior Rights Victoria, found that elder abuse issues were most commonly reported in relation to female victims (73% females compared to 28% males) and the most commonly reported perpetrators were male (60% males and 40% females).

Similarly, the majority of perpetrators of the abuse reported to Senior Rights Victoria’s helpline were children of the victim (67%), with sons responsible for 40% of incidents reported, and daughters for 27%.

Why wouldn’t a parent trust their own child? In reality, children misappropriate their parents’ money for a variety of reasons. Financial stress, greed, a sense of entitlement and gambling are just a few.

There can be no justifiable reason for this sort of behaviour and we all – especially aged care workers, social workers, doctors, nurses, neighbours and friends – have a role to play in protecting society’s most vulnerable from such brazen, cruel, unscrupulous and unlawful behaviour.

To rub salt into what are often grieving wounds, when elder abuse offences are reported to police, the victims themselves or their families are frequently told that it is a civil matter rather something that law enforcement can get involved in.

The best way to deal with elder abuse is to prevent it from happening in the first place, which hopefully the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission can help achieve.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is June 15. You can find out more at: www.elderabuseawarenessday.org.au

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Andrew Meiliunas

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Andrew Meiliunas is an Associate in Maurice Blackburn’s Melbourne office who works exclusively in Wills and Estates Law. Andrew is a compassionate and resourceful lawyer who fights hard for his clients. He is a tough negotiator with almost a decade of experience, who holds ...

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