Educating elders on financial abuse

Elder abuse is prevalent in Canada, and financial abuse is its most common manifestation


It often begins with verbal or emotional abuse, and requests for money. Historically, it’s an adult son or grandson, dependent on his parents or grandparents, who takes unfair advantage of vulnerable family members. Abuse can vary from theft to coercion, even to threats or acts of physical violence unless the victims do as asked or told.

Unfortunately, elder abuse is not uncommon. In fact, 45 per cent of Canadian seniors experience some form of abuse from age 65 and on, according to the Department of Justice. While the type of abuse varies, the most common form is financial and emotional, and one often accompanies the other.

Perhaps most unsettling: 64 per cent of victims know their abusers.

“A lot of older people tend to not see it as abuse. They see it as a parental responsibility to give money to an adult child or a grandchild, maybe needing help, but it’s hard to distinguish: am I really helping, or am I being taken advantage of?” says Grace Balbutin, director of the Seniors Abuse and Information Line (SAIL) and program manager of community-based victim services at Seniors First BC, formerly the BC Centre for Elder  Advocacy and Support.

Open 12 hours a day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., SAIL fields around 3,000 calls a year from seniors and loved ones with questions and concerns related to elder abuse. This year, Balbutin thinks the number of calls will rise to 4,000, in part due to greater awareness about the service – a silver lining around an otherwise urgent and upsetting picture.

A new report published by Vancity credit union found that more than a third of seniors in Metro Vancouver and the Greater Victoria area who have experienced financial abuse don’t tell anyone. About a fifth of that cohort stated they didn’t know whom to tell.

Polling included in Suffering in Silence: The financial abuse of seniors in British Columbia, which questioned 400 adults aged 65 and over through online surveys, also found that more than 80 per cent of respondents couldn’t name a support service related to elder financial abuse. Additionally, the report concluded that the gap between unprompted reports of abuse and reports made after examples were presented – three per cent and 36 per cent, respectively – indicates seniors may not realize or understand when or how they are victims.

It’s a life-and-death issue, according to Laura Tamblyn Watts, senior fellow and staff lawyer at the Vancouver-based Canadian Centre for Elder Law (CCEL).

“If an older adult suffers a loss of $20,000 or more, their chances of dying in 18 months skyrockets. So literally, elder financial abuse or abuse that takes an amount of money like $20,000 or more, it becomes a matter of life and death. Because you don’t have the opportunity to make the money back,” says Tamblyn Watts.

“It often results in homelessness, inability to buy food, inability to take medication. The shock and toll of that kind of violation and abuse really can lead to very imminent death. It’s an enormously serious issue.”

CCEL and the Canadian Foundation for Advancement of Investor Rights (Fair Canada) recently published Report on Vulnerable Investors: Elder Abuse, Financial Exploitation, Undue Influence and Diminished Mental Capacity, which Tamblyn Watts co-authored. It depicts several case studies – the snake oil salesman, the send-money scammer, the new (and manipulative) best friend – but it’s the “unsuccessful son in the basement” that often proves most common.

Tamblyn Watts points to how the next decade or so will see the greatest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history. It’s not always planned for, and with age comes greater vulnerability, particularly when challenges like diminished mental capacity are considered. Wealth in this case means assets: a home and land title, securities, savings. Such transfers, or the liquidation of assets, often involve professionals who have experience and, in theory, an opportunity to prevent trades, sales or transfers that seem unusual or unwise.

In theory.

“If there’s real concern about it, they’re still bound by the regulations to the trade,” explains Tamblyn Watts, outlining that financial services representatives are both bound by confidentially and bound to execute the wishes of their clients. Breaching privacy or not acting on behalf of a client can come with serious professional repercussions. At the same time, if representatives suspect diminished mental capacity and do nothing, they also face consequences.

“It doesn’t really give them any flexibility if they’re very concerned with mental capacity, undue influence or elder financial abuse.”

Education and training for financial services representatives is one of a number of recommendations made in the report. It also urges securities regulators to adopt a rule that would require firms to collect information for a trusted contact person for each client, to be contacted should a client present signs of diminished mental capacity.

For consumers, the Canadian Bankers Association recommends safeguarding bank and credit cards along with personal identification numbers. The association also cautions that joint accounts, unlike power of attorney, give full account access to a joint user, and that individuals should understand every document they intend to sign, advice that holds regardless of age.

Both Tamblyn Watts and Balbutin warn that, unfortunately, once the money is gone, it’s gone. And that often leaves vulnerable investors and seniors with few resources to pursue legal action.

Again, education and awareness are key, and to that end, Seniors First BC hosts workshops for seniors and family members on financial prudence and how to identify abuse.

While financial abuse is sadly prevalent among older Canadians, it’s true too that anyone, at any age, can become suddenly more vulnerable to predators, scammers and thieves.

“Anyone could have a terrible car accident. Anyone could have a traumatic brain injury at any age,” Tamblyn Watts says.

“This is the kind of thing that we need to take out of an ageist idea.”