Seniors being pressured into giving up large sums of money is a growing problem. However, they are not necessarily being scammed by strangers; more often the money goes to a family member, leaving the seniors with little or nothing to live on.
“It happens a lot,” says Martha Jane Lewis, executive director of the BC Centre for Elder Advocacy and Support (BCCEAS). “Most abuse of seniors takes the form of financial abuse. When it comes from a family member or friend, it’s emotional abuse as well, and it’s very painful.”
Lewis says it happens all the time, with people applying pressure in a variety of ways. “Sometimes younger people will tell their parents that unless they do what’s being asked, they won’t see their grandchildren again. Or if a son or daughter is a parent’s primary contact, the parent will often let the abuse continue rather than risk having that contact cut off.”
The abuse happens, says Lewis, for many reasons. “A lot of younger people have a sense of entitlement, and feel that as it’s going to be theirs one day, it’s okay. Or they tell themselves that older people don’t need as much money to live on.”
The number one financial abuse scenario is when an older adult is pressured to “lend” money to a son or daughter who is in financial difficulty. In many cases, the younger person never intends to repay the “loan”, which can leave parents in financial distress.
“This is far and away the most common financial abuse we see. The older adult eventually gives in to the guilt, which can involve parting with their entire life savings.
“It’s understandable to want to help your children, but older adults have to just say no.”
Joint bank accounts are a way in which the elderly are financially abused, Smith explains. A son or daughter will have their name added to an account, often telling the parent that they will look after the statements. In the meantime, the account is quietly drained of money.
Residences are another source of contention. Lewis advises older homeowners to keep their house in their own name, and not to give title to their children.
“In the last year we’ve dealt with three cases of men signing their houses over to their sons, only to have the sons kick them out a short time later.” Another case involved an elderly couple who paid their son tens of thousands of dollars toward renovating space at the son’s house for the parents to move into. A few months later the son was verbally abusive to both parents and told them to leave.
Older adults who have been financially abused by loved ones often do nothing, Lewis explains. “They’re embarrassed, or it’s too painful for them.”
Many also feel that because they have nothing in writing, they’re unlikely to be successful if the matter goes to court, but Lewis says this isn’t the case.
“Unless there’s a clear indication—a letter saying ‘Here’s a million dollars I’d like to give you’—that it’s a gift, the courts will say it’s a loan, and that it must be paid back.”
In the case of the parents ordered to leave their son’s house after paying for renovations, Lewis says there was an unwritten contract. “When arrangements go sideways, there are often ways to get money back, or regain ownership of a house. For instance, bank statements will show where money went, and can be used as evidence.”
More fallout from the financial abuse is the way it can split families apart, she explains. “If one child gets their name on the title of their parents’ house, it can leave their siblings with nothing when their parents die. The same thing happens when a child with joint bank account access drains the funds from it.”
The result pits siblings against each other, often in court, where legal fees can eat up any money that is being fought for, Lewis notes. Parents and siblings can also cut themselves off from the abuser, resulting in considerable pain. One man who was financially taken advantage of by a child said that he has suffered for more than a year over how he was treated.
“I don’t know what the son thinks he’s gained from it,” says Lewis. “The rest of the family has cut him off entirely.”
The BCCEAS is a non-profit, charitable organization committed to protecting the legal rights of older adults, increasing access to justice for older adults, informing the public about elder abuse, and providing supportive programs for older adults who have been abused.
It has a toll free number from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. daily. Older adults who have been abused—financially or otherwise—can call 1-866-437-1940 for advice, or to speak with a victim service worker who can listen and offer support.
Lewis urges anyone who has concerns that an older adult is being abused, neglected, or self-neglected to report the situation to a designated agency responder, part of each of the province’s health authorities. The report is confidential, and once received means that a responder will visit the older adult in question to check on their health and safety.
Interior Health is a designated agency responder; the number to call is (250) 453-1939 (Ashcroft/Cache Creek); 1-877-453-1939 (Clinton); (250) 523-9414 (Logan Lake); and (250) 455-2221, ext. 4 (Lytton/Spences Bridge)
Ultimately, says Lewis, the best defence older adults have against becoming victims of financial abuse is to say no.
“If you decide to proceed, put it all in writing: when and how the money will be repaid, and at what interest rate. Have it witnessed—it doesn’t need to be done by a lawyer—and make sure everyone has copies of it.”