Seniors are drowning in debt
Seniors struggling with debt are appearing in court more and more, a top judge has warned.
Senior magistrate Juan Wolffe said he was “concerned” by an apparent increase in elderly debtors landing in court.
He added that limited pensions to cover healthcare and utilities costs were an issue and that, in some cases, family members may be “taking advantage” of older relatives.
Mr Wolffe said the make-up of debtors’ court had changed in the past few years, although he still saw “frequent flyers” who must be warned they could face jail.
He told The Royal Gazette: “I’m starting to get a bit concerned about the pattern of elderly people who come to court, people who owe money.
“That’s kind of sad because they can’t get employment so they’re like 70, 75, and can’t get a job but owe monies for hospital bills, telephone, utilities. Their pension only goes so far, so it’s racking up.
“The sad cases are when the landlord has had to take the very uncomfortable decision to evict them from their house and the elderly person doesn’t have anywhere to go, the immediate family is not really there to support.
“In those cases, I do not tell them about the consequences, I just don’t want to.”
Mr Wolffe has noticed the trend over the past year and that it affected people aged between 65 and 85.
He added: “We’re living longer, persons need to take care of themselves. There’s so much of a break down in the family unit, which means that people aren’t really taking care of their elderly person.”
Mr Wolffe said a “level of ageism” means seniors were unable to work.
He added: “A lot of these people, you see them in court and they are mentally sound, intellectually sound, they’re switched on, even somewhat physically sound but they’re not being employed and they’ve got bills to pay too.
“The longer you live, the more you’re going to need to sustain yourself and I think that in many cases the pension is not covering that.”
Mr Wolffe explained: “We in the court see the trends, we see what’s happening before it happens.
“I think on a macro level we need to be concerned because we have, maybe, a population of elderly people who can’t afford their bills and that has other consequences to it.”
He said that alongside hospital fees, the biggest cause of debt appearances were mobile phone bills and that this was an area where elderly people “are being used” by others.
The senior magistrate explained that seniors signed agreements on behalf of younger family members who “go away, use roaming and elderly grandma and grandfather has a bill for $5,000 for a mobile phone that they didn’t even use, but they signed up because granddaughter wanted a mobile phone”.
He said: “The other thing, elderly people who do have a home, because they worked hard for it, have someone living in their house with them, and just exploiting them, running up all sorts of bills.
“Grandparents are buying all the food in the house and the grandchildren or whoever are living off the home.
“I have no proof of this, I have no statistics, but I do think that there’s a lot more elderly abuse going on than we know about, because a lot of it is not being reported, I don’t think.
“I do get to see some of those things in my courtroom but I suspect that I’m only seeing maybe the tip of the iceberg in terms of those sorts of arrangements where persons are taking advantage of their elderly relative.”
He added that unscrupulous tenants who have older landlords also seemed to play a part.
Mr Wolffe said: “Unfortunately we have some people who will take advantage of the elderly and not pay their bills because they actually think that the elderly person is not going to have the energy or desire to take them to court and they well know that.”
The magistrate’s views were backed by Claudette Fleming, the executive director of Age Concern Bermuda.
She also highlighted the problem of elderly people signing up to mobile phone agreements for others.
She added: “It expands to support for education, support for homes, support to renovate homes.”
Dr Fleming said: “Many are being exploited by children, grandchildren. Many people sign things and don’t really understand what they’ve signed.”
She added that a seniors court, similar to the Family Court, would offer “more restorative justice” in sensitive circumstances and “save the senior shame”.
Dr Fleming said: “They could bring the family in to negotiate what the settlement will be and how they will make payments, just like how it works for child support, so that it’s not so devastating.
“At the end of the day, seniors need to live with their family members, you want to right the wrong but you don’t want to destroy that support system that should be there for them in the process.”
She added there was no desire to “prohibit an older adult’s right to take a risk” if they planned to sign an agreement on behalf of someone else.
But she said that seniors should always consider whether they can pay off debts if the individual failed to do so.