Thursday 30 August 2012

Protect the elderly from financial abuse

By Chan Wing Cheong, Published The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2012

IT WAS shocking news when acting legend Mickey Rooney, who has appeared in hundreds of films, television shows and theatre productions, sought legal protection in the United States last year against two of his stepchildren for elder abuse.

One of the allegations made by Mr Rooney, 90, against his stepson was that he was forced to continue working against his will through the use of threats and intimidation.

By rerouting Mr Rooney's mail, the stepson took control of Mr Rooney's money and used it to finance an extravagant lifestyle.

Elder abuse happens in Singapore as well, but we do not know how prevalent or how serious it is. Like in other countries, many victims of elder abuse do not come forward to seek help.

For some, this could be due to a sense of shame in admitting that a family member (who could be their child or spouse) is abusing them, or fear that if they turn against their abuser, there will be no one else to take care of them or the abuse may get worse.

For others, it could be an unwillingness or inability to admit that they are the victim of elder abuse, or a belief that they are themselves to blame ("This is happening because I wasn't a good parent to my children when they were younger").

The types of elder abuse which come to the attention of outsiders are often ones where physical signs are left on the body (such as bruises or scars, unusual weight loss or dehydration, unsanitary clothes) or when it happens in public (such as abandonment, yelling or humiliation in public).

Financial abuse, on the other hand, can be more subtle and the exploitation may go unnoticed for a long time.

One example I have come across is that of an adult unemployed nephew who ostensibly moved in with his aged uncle "in order to look after him".

The nephew then took over the master bedroom and invited his girlfriend to move in. They did little to "look after" the uncle and in fact asked him for money for their daily needs and lived in the flat rent-free.

Other forms of financial abuse range from taking money or property without consent, forging the elderly person's signature, getting the elderly person to sign a deed or will in one's favour through deception or undue influence, to convincing an elderly person to part with his or her money in a fraudulent investment or purchase that is severely over-valued.

Financial abuse of the elderly is likely to increase in future, considering that more retirees have built up sizeable savings and investments after years spent in the workforce.

Rapid changes in technology can also make it harder for the elderly to manage their own finances and easier for exploitation to take place.

For example, some bank accounts have only online statements, and it is now possible to make various transactions on the Internet without face-to-face verification.

Weak physical health may mean an elderly person allowing someone else access to sensitive financial information since he is unable to go personally to an ATM to withdraw money. The confidential PIN is then revealed to another person for withdrawals to be made on the elderly person's behalf.

Sadly, there has been little advance in Singapore law to strengthen the protection against financial abuse.

The new Mental Capacity Act that was enacted in Singapore in 2010 allows the appointment of a "donee" to manage a person's finances when he or she no longer has the capacity to do so.

However, protection may be needed earlier - when the elderly person still has the capacity to make his or her own decisions but is in a vulnerable state because of poor mental or physical health.

The new offence of "ill-treatment" in the Mental Capacity Act, which supplements existing criminal laws, also focuses exclusively on physical and psychological abuse.

What can the elderly person do to guard against financial abuse?

The elderly person should try to be in touch with as many family members, friends and neighbours as possible. Elder abuse occurs most to those who are isolated and lonely.

Loved ones can also look out for the following signs, which suggest a problem: unpaid bills; withdrawals or transfers from bank accounts which the elderly person cannot explain; and bank statements no longer being sent to the elderly person's address.

Also to watch out for are newfound "best friends" or romantic liaisons with a younger person; a standard of care that is not commensurate with the elderly person's wealth; missing belongings or property; and signatures on documents or cheques which the elderly person cannot understand or explain.

Mr Mickey Rooney was courageous in stepping forward to admit that he had been a victim of elder abuse. He subsequently gave evidence before the US Senate committee on elder abuse with the message that "if it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody".

Victims and others who know of elder abuse happening in Singapore must similarly step forward.

The writer is an associate professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore. He teaches criminal law and family law, and is a member of the Adult Protection Team, an inter-disciplinary platform that reviews case management of abused vulnerable adults.

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