The secret shame of elder abuse: No easy solution to a cruel and silent problem
Further commentary on elderly exploitation articles featured last week in
The Royal Gazette.
Birthing, living, and dying is a messy business; these events are made particularly painful when there are family assets involved. History is replete with tales of family relatives’ mayhem, malfeasance, and downright murder when an inheritance (or the ultimate prize, the throne) was up for grabs. Families haven’t changed that much, and as several bloggers moaned on Thursday, May16, 2013, in response to stories of elder exploitation in Bermuda, the sleight of hand to change an inheritance, and elderly abuse still exists today.
Unsolicited advice reigned supreme. “Quit whining! Cut those ungrateful relatives off!” said another. “Get your act together. You have been told enough times that every person, but particularly if you are elderly, should get their affairs in order.” Oh, how easy it is to tell other people what to do.” Find yourself in the same situation and you may tell a different tale. Why? Because we are all, deep down inside part of our families and communities. We are basically herd animals, co-existing and depending upon one another.
The following composite case is hypothetical and not intended to resemble any individual in Bermuda or abroad. The case is, however, a true statement of facts.
She was a tall thin elegant appearing lady, dressed simply, but wearing a real air of concern. She had come to the local bank apparently to discuss term deposit rates, but five minutes into the conversation with her, I knew that was not her worry.
“My children want me to transfer ownership of my house to them so they can help me out,” she said. Are you comfortable with that prospect, I inquired? The answer came back, not really but she admitted she was in a complete quandary. She loves her adult children and grandchildren. You know how it is as a committed mother, she has always wanted the best for them, and tried to provide. She mentioned that she had already provided loans to two out of their three adult children. The loans have not been paid back, not even the interest.
We review her financial position. At 69 and still working, she has modest savings in total, around $200,000 BMD. She widowed early, and managed by working two jobs for many years to liquidate the mortgage on their home. She owns the family homestead solely and outright. It is her legacy, the dream that galvanised her (and her late spouse) all these years working low paying jobs to see the reality. She will receive a tiny, tiny pension when she retires.
The questions become harder as we explore how she is going to handle her situation, since the third child, who has not yet been the recipient of a family loan, is agitating for parity.
We run through a series of personal assessment questions.
When are you planning to retire? Answer: soon.
Are there any other financial resources? Answer: no. One child rents the apartment downstairs and is nine months behind in the rent. This is another huge emotional issue for her in watching her children’s relentless quest for immediate inheritance equity.
Are any of your children financially independent? Answer: no.
Do any of your children own their own homes? Answer: no.
And the hardest questions of all that I had to ask. First, you understand that your savings will not last your full retirement? Yes, she said, I realise that and why she had planned to use the (non-forthcoming) rental income.
Lastly, do you honestly feel that if you became ill that your children would do the right thing and take care of you lovingly, carefully, and in a medically comfortable way
“No, they won’t take care of me,” she said. “And if I don’t sign over the house to them, the children said, I can’t see the grandchildren any more.” The pain and sadness in her eyes was devastating.
Emotional blackmail works, especially when small vulnerable children are involved. Call it whatever you want, that is what it is. The threat of being denied emotional contact with her family community is almost too much to bear. Yet, almost always, if the elderly individual capitulates, they lose a position of power and authority, never to be regained. We are creatures who need community and family to live successfully. Over the years, societies and sects have practiced shunning, and casting out. The effect is the same. The individual is cut off physically, emotionally, and spiritually from everything he or she knows and loves.
Much of the advice rendered this week contained some kernels of truth, common sense, and compassion.
Calls for stronger laws, higher scrutiny of in appropriate case situations and responsible vetting of clients wishing to transfer assets requested from the legal profession, use of the Senior Abuse Register, an Asset Protection Act with prompt prosecution and sentencing of those abuse perpetrators who have fraudulently conveyed assets away from seniors, are all terrific ideas that should be strengthened with increased power and enforcement.
There is no easy solution to this often cruelly silent problem. Instances of abuse must first be disclosed, then documented, and then finances found (out of elderly individuals precious savings) to initiation protective action, and recover stolen assets and property.
Prevention and planning which fierce advocate for seniors, Age Concern Director Claudette Fleming has always espoused, needs to be made more affordable, more easily accessible, and provided on an ongoing basis.
We suggest that Age Concern be empowered:
l To create a full-time legal advocate position (with a practicing attorney who specialises in elder law) within Age Concern who can provide proactive low-cost legal advice available every business day, advocate on behalf of elderly clients, assist, represent, and complete follow through of prosecuting cases in a timely manner for the elderly who have been wronged.
l To bring all senior matters, offices, and advocacy agents together under the direction of Age Concern for a one-stop convenient place for elderly assistance and protection.
So many elderly, embarrassed and ashamed of their desperate situations, rendered emotionally and financially powerless by relatives (and more often than you think, strangers), simply resign themselves to the inevitable, relinquishing everything.
This is not what anyone wants, a less than graceful and lonely exit (from this world).
Martha Harris Myron JP CPA PFS CFP TEP is a Bermudian, and a cross border financial planning specialist / journalist. Her articles are published domestically and internationally, focusing on the challenging financial environment for local and international residents and their families living and working in Bermuda with connections across the pond in the North Atlantic Quadrangle: United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Europe. Inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org