22 August 2017

Elder abuse - the horrible truth

In our recent double feature “What’s on the table for older voters”, almost every political party in New Zealand named elder abuse as a major concern.

National’s Minister for Seniors, Maggie Barry named it as one of the biggest issues affecting older kiwis today and newbie to Labour but longtime justice spokesman, Greg O’Connor said we should start calling it what it really is. Crime.

Six weeks ago the Government launched EARS or Elder Abuse Response Service – a free and confidential help-line open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Calls are answered by registered nurses who direct callers to elder abuse specialist service providers in their region, like Age Concern.

Age Concern Chief Executive, Stephanie Clare is delighted with the three year funding but says there’s still a long road ahead.

“Elder abuse is a serious human rights violation and needs to stop. Our society has somehow lost the respect we used to show to our older members. That needs to change and we all need to be more responsible for our own behaviour. We’re very pleased that it’s an election issue because to solve the problem it’s going to need the whole country to get on board – just like child abuse.”

One of the biggest challenges is that precise prevalence rates are difficult to establish because fear, shame, and stigma prevent older people from reporting.

What we do know is that elder abuse, like child abuse, is mostly an inside job. 

“Historically we’ve always thought elder abuse came from outside the family. But this isn’t about stranger danger or even cyber crime – the fact is that more than ¾ of elder abuse is perpetrated by family members.”

Age Concern, a major but not sole service provider, estimates that between 17,000 and 25,000 older New Zealanders may experience some form of abuse or neglect every year.

Here are their official numbers:

They receive 8 referrals every working day (2000 a year). About three quarters of these cases are confirmed as elder abuse.

In the last three years:

  • 75% involved psychological abuse
  • Over 50% involved financial abuse
  • 15-20% involved physical abuse
  • 10-15 % involved neglect
  • 10-15% involved self-neglect

Almost half of abused older people are over the age of 80 and one third of abused older people live alone. 79% are harmed by family members and 43% of victims live with their abusers. Almost half of alleged abusers are adult children and they’re just as likely to be female as male. 

Elder abuse affects up to 25,000 older New Zealanders every year

Elder abuse affects up to 25,000 older New Zealanders every year

A high profile and recent example - Erica and Terrence Heppell, who were jailed for two years and nine months in October for the ill-treatment of their mother who was found by ambulance staff lying in her own waste, with several untreated sores on her body and a dislocated shoulder.  

Former Retirement Commissioner, Diana Crossan says it’s vital the country starts naming the abuse and outing the abusers.

“Like sexual abuse and domestic violence, elder abuse is an issue that until very recently has been locked away. We are slowly unearthing behaviour in our society that we don’t like and that’s a very good thing. It’s good that older people will know that it’s not ok and good that perpetrators will hear that they’re being talked about. The cases that make the courts have really helped highlight the issue.” 

Unfortunately, most abusers never reach the court. Older people might not always be aware of the abuse or if they are, feel powerless to stop it or reluctant to cause a fuss or get their family members in trouble. And a lot of the abuse is insidious, especially the most common types – psychological and financial, which often go hand in hand.

Age Concern says there has been a significant societal shift of control and power when it comes to finance which has allowed more abuse to creep in.

“Our older people are living longer and need their money to live their lives. But they’re also more dependent on family members to manage their finances, especially with advancing technology. When things get tight, these older people symbolize an easy source of income.”

Clare says abusers might feel they’re entitled to help themselves because they’re caring for the older person. There are others who believe they will or should inherit an asset eventually, so might as well get the benefit sooner rather than later.

Erica & Terrence Heppell

Erica & Terrence Heppell

The following examples represent the sort of financial abuse cases that Age Concern deals with daily.

Caregivers (including family members) misusing or stealing from the bank accounts of elderly in their care.

A granddaughter dutifully visits her grandmother once a week and always offers to do the shopping. She takes the eftpos card and purchases everything Nana requires, filling up the trolley for her flat at the same time. Nana never asks for the receipt, she trusts her granddaughter and is so grateful for the visit.

Pressuring a person to sign a legal document, such as a guarantee or mortgage. 

A son’s marriage breaks up and he doesn’t have enough money post-settlement to buy a big enough house to have his kids stay every second weekend. He goes to his mother, tells her he’ll have to move in with her, unless she can be a guarantor for him to buy a house. “If I can’t see the kids you’ll never see them either.”

Using enduring power of attorney (EPA) in a way that is not in the interests of the person who granted it.

An older man has chosen his son, who works in business but lives far away to be his EPA – Property, and his daughter who’s very caring and lives nearby to be his EPA - Personal care and welfare. EPA Welfare tells EPA Property their father desperately needs his bathroom altered to accommodate a wheelchair accessible shower since he can no longer stand to bathe since his stroke. But EPA Property refuses to allocate the funds, saying it’s a waste of money when Dad is managing fine at the moment. The truth? The son is loathe to dip into their future inheritance.

Hanny Naus, Age Concern’s National Advisor for Elder Abuse says older people can protect themselves by being assertive, organising their financial affairs to meet their own needs and taking responsibility for them as much as possible. If it’s possible older people should increase their financial and computer literacy.

Here are some other practical tips:

Don’t keep piles of cash at home. If you have to give your eftpos card to someone else, always ask for receipts. If you’ve got a bad feeling, you can always go to your bank and request a new bank account number and card.

Alter your patterns in subtle ways. If your intuition tells you that the ‘friend’ who tidies the garden every Wednesday while you’re out getting your hair done might be helping themselves to the silver, change your appointment.

Review automatic payments on a regular basis. When did the neighbour’s son who you pay $30 a week to mow your lawns last turn up?

Choose EPAs who will take care of your best interests, NOT their own. Appointing two individuals to act jointly in this role may offer greater protection. Review often.

Seek independent advice – especially if family members ask you to sell your house or change your will.

And with telemarketers - if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Finally, ooze control, even if you don’t feel it. The more the abuser perceives you’re in charge of your own affairs, the better.

If you think you or your loved ones are being abused please call:

EARS or Elder Abuse Response Service on 0800 32 668 65 (0800 EA NOT OK) or visit

You can also call your local Age Concern directly. Check out the list of Age Concern branches on or phone 04 8019338 for the number of your local service.

Article written by Hannah Hill, Lifetime Retirement Income.

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