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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
Dr. Brown: When those we trust cross the line into elder abuse
Many seniors become more dependent on others to help them manage their homes and finances. However, Dr. William Brown writers, are those who provide the support responsible and honest? RICHARD HARLEY/MIDJOURNEY

Beginnings and endings mirror one another in life.

At birth babies are nearly defenceless and despite a brain with an enormous built-in capacity for learning, it takes many years before they’re fully capable of responsibly looking after themselves, never mind anyone else.

At the other end of life, it’s all too often the reverse: the later years are characterized by a steady erosion of memory, cognitive skills and the social intelligence needed to navigate an increasingly perilous life for those tasked with looking after themselves and sometimes an even more vulnerable partner.

It’s the loss of the mental wherewithal to accurately read the intentions of others that make appropriate decisions, which together with physical frailty, can make the later years so challenging for seniors.

It also renders them vulnerable to manipulation, neglect and abuse by others.

The later sometimes include those closest at hand, such as health care workers in the home or nursing homes, and, perhaps worst of all, those most trusted by the elderly — close members of the family.

And we haven’t even touched on the vulnerability of the elderly to those who seek through faked identity phone calls or fake emails, access to bank accounts, passwords and more.

Roughly one-third to one-half of seniors over the age of 80 suffer from some measure of cognitive decline and memory loss. Working together, they can impair the ability to keep track of financial transactions, whether it’s paying bills or making investment decisions.

And worse, many seniors, because of increasing frailty and cognitive issues, become more dependent on others to help them manage their homes and finances. Here lies the rub: are those who provide the support responsible and honest?

Most of the time things work out. In the case of my mother-in-law there was nothing wrong with her wit.

To her end, she was sharp and savvy enough to manage her financial affairs but eventually too tired and short-winded because of progressive heart failure to get out to her favourite bank and teller.

She wisely transferred power of attorney for her finances and day-to-day transactions to her trusted daughter. Even so, being the good bookkeeper that she was, she kept track of what was going on with her accounts and investments until almost the day she died two years later.

Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works out for some. In the time that I lived in Boston I witnessed several examples of financial and emotional abuse from close family.

One woman in her mid-60s lived alone and developed Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

Eventually, she had considerable trouble making herself understood, which prompted her two children to take her to court to transfer power of attorney for financial affairs to them.

Hence they had the ability to sell her home in Newton in what was a very hot and lucrative real estate market.

The judge clearly saw there was nothing wrong with her mind and quashed what would have been a financial windfall for her children and a disaster for their mother.

This and other examples, including several with which I’m familiar in Niagara and Hamilton, remind me that even close family members sometimes can’t be trusted when they see an easy path to supplementing their income with  a series of “loans” that cumulatively may bankrupt their aging loved ones.

One friend was taken advantage of for almost 10 years. The trouble in her case was that initially she couldn’t bring herself to believe that her daughter had any intention of stealing and even when she later cottoned on, she was reluctant to say anything for fear of embarrassment, physical or psychological harassment.

Even when the evidence of fraud may be obvious, the guilty party can be let off the hook with various excuses and forgiven again, again and yet again.

This may get to the point where the slow drip-drip from so many withdrawals leave the senior bereft and now dependent on others for support in their final years. It’s an all-too-common tragedy.

Thus, the wealth garnered by a generation or two may pass unchecked because of the avarice of a child, a relative or friend and because the senior is unable — usually for cognitive reasons or unwilling or both — to step in.

Without a responsible honest overseer, those life savings and assets can evaporate unless those best placed to pick up the first wisps of financial abuse (bankers, investment counsellors, brokers and estate lawyers), sound the alarm.

Fortunately, in Canada and many U.S. states bankers and investment counsellors are now required to report any suspicious financial activity.

It’s about time. Those standing on guard for their parents or grandparents bear a special responsibility to look after them — as they would have others look after themselves when the time comes.

That’s part of the Golden Rule, applied to seniors, and indeed the vulnerable at any age.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.  

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