Financial abuse a growing concern
While it was apparent to Brown that Veronica was being taken advantage of, she didn’t want to — and still doesn’t want to — cut off contact with Andrew. Brown feels stuck, unable to help as his mother’s quality of life suffers.
“She says she’s so morbidly ashamed,” he says. “She can’t ask for help because her friends wouldn’t understand … she’s alone with it.”
He adds that his own friends he’s confided in are shocked — Veronica is the last person they would have expected to fall victim to financial abuse.
“I think the lesson here is, if you think that your loved ones are not vulnerable, think again,” says Brown.
That’s an assertion echoed by Gloria Gutman, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
“Financial abuse is a huge issue and will only get bigger,” says Gutman, who developed the university’s Gerontology Research Centre and Department of Gerontology and served as the director of both for more than 20 years.
“Think about the housing market in Toronto and Vancouver and Granny living alone in a five-bedroom house in a posh neighbourhood. She is a sitting duck for rapacious relatives and property developers — especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In Ontario alone, between the onset of the pandemic and this past summer, calls to the Senior Safety Line have increased by a reported 250%.
But it’s not just the pandemic — or insane real estate prices — that leaves Canada’s seniors vulnerable.
As baby boomers age, a massive wealth transfer has begun. Research firm Strategic Insights projects that between 2016 and 2026, about $1 trillion is set to change hands in Canada. And some will stoop to anything to get a piece of that pie.
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Signs of abuse are ‘tangible’
Financial abuse is one of the most common of the five different types of elder abuse, which also include physical, psychological, sexual abuse and neglect.
That’s likely because financial abuse is easily identifiable and measurable, says Kathy Majowski, a registered nurse in Winnipeg and the chair of the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (CNPEA).
“It’s tangible,” she says. “Suddenly people don’t have access to their money or they’ve lost a portion of their money….”
Other forms of abuse, she notes, “can be a little bit more difficult to identify.”
According to Benedicte Schoepflin, CNPEA’s executive director in Vancouver, the most obvious signs an elderly person is being taken advantage of, besides struggling to pay their bills, are that they’re confused; they’ve got a new friend or associate; or their health or personal hygiene has taken a sharp decline.
Professionals do their best to prevent abuse
Kimberly Whaley, the founding partner at WEL Partners in Toronto, which focuses on trust and estate matters, says her firm is dealing with more cases of individuals’ assets being depleted during their lifetime than ever before.
Has COVID played a part in that? “It would be impossible if it hadn’t,” says Whaley.
“What is perfect in this storm are the factors of alienation, sequestering and isolation. And isolation is something we all suffered during COVID.”
Schoepflin adds that when people are isolated, “it may be easier to fall prey to a scam because you’re also maybe happy somebody has called.”
That isolation makes things especially difficult for trust and estate planners like Whaley when it comes time to meet with clients.
“How do you prepare a senior for a Zoom meeting? And how do you know they’re the only person there?” She adds: “You never know who’s pulling the strings in the background.”
At her practice, Whaley has drafted up a comprehensive checklist for lawyers to go through to ensure clients aren’t being influenced by other parties.
But video or phone calls also make it more challenging for lawyers to pick up on nonverbal cues of abuse, meaning some seniors may slip through the cracks.
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Uncomfortable conversations can save lives
It’s not just estate lawyers who should be on the lookout for signs of abuse.
Whaley offers the example of a prominent case where an elderly man was taken advantage of by a woman he met at his local credit union. She offered to clean his home and, before long, she was named as his beneficiary on a number of accounts and his power of attorney.
At some point, the man’s neighbours noticed he seemed out of sorts and disheveled. They took him to a lawyer and helped unravel the story.
Part of the responsibility here, Whaley says, falls to the lawyer who helped the man and his abuser set up all the accounts when he was clearly vulnerable.
“It’s pretty shocking in this day and age — you’d have to be living in a bunker and never come out not to know that’s abuse,” she says.
Thanks to his neighbours, the man was able to regain his power of attorney and his assets.
Whaley says this demonstrates that just being friendly and observant if something seems off can make a huge difference for a vulnerable senior.
That being said, talking about money can feel tough with a parent or relative, let alone an elderly neighbour. A survey from Canada’s Securities Administrators shows that nearly 40% of Canadians don’t feel it’s their place to talk about money with older adults in their life.
But Majowski says if you suspect something might be wrong, you don’t have to launch immediately into “I think you’re being abused.” In fact, that might not be helpful.
Instead, try: “I’m worried about you, is everything okay?”
“The conversation doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult,” says Majowski.
These situations need to be treated sensitively
For Brown, it’s been a heartbreaking few years. Watching his mother struggle, while being unwilling to accept help, has been excruciating.
But with support from Schoepflin and the CNPEA, he’s now at peace with the fact that his mother will only accept help when she’s ready.
It’s a fine balance children and loved ones like Brown must negotiate. As long as there’s no question of competence, Gutman says we must remember that older people have the right to be foolish if they want.
“It is your right as an older person to live in dignity and to be able to control your assets until you can’t do it anymore,” says Gutman.
And many victims, whether because they don’t want to get their children in trouble or can’t risk losing their sole support system, are reluctant to tell on their kids.
“It’s like domestic violence … you can’t force the person who’s experiencing that violence to leave,” says Majowski. “But you can regularly remind them that you support them, that there are options available and that you’re happy to help them — without judgment.”
Brown is haunted by what-ifs, but he recognizes he can’t blame himself. And he understands why Veronica needs time to come around to what’s happened to her. So he’ll wait until she’s ready to take help. But he laments his mother’s circumstances.
“I don’t want to say she doesn’t have a roof over her head, but certainly, it’s not a very nice one.”
Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
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