Warning Signs of Elder Abuse, Financial Exploitation and Its Prevention

An older woman standing by the window holding the curtain aside to look out

There have been many recent, high-profile legal cases that have brought elder financial abuse into the spotlight and illustrated how it’s not restricted to those providing care or close family members.

One of the most notorious was connected to the late comic book legend, Stan Lee, who created Spider-Man, Thor and the Hulk, who was in the news because of elder abuse accusations. His former manager, Keya Morgan, was charged with elder abuse in May 2019, for actions dating back to 2018. Keya was accused of taking advantage of Stan’s impaired vision, hearing and judgment to take control of his business dealings. He was charged with fraud, false imprisonment and forgery.

This story showcases the unfortunate truth that elder abuse — and elder financial abuse — is not confined to nursing homes (although there are a number of cases reported each year). This was not a case of elderly financial abuse by family members, but by a trusted business colleague.

There are different types of elder abuse and even the rich and famous can be its victims.

Shining a light on a taboo subject

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (June 15) is organized by the United Nations to raise awareness of the ways older people are ill-treated and exploited and to highlight elder abuse and financial elder abuse prevention. According to the UN, elder abuse is one of the least investigated types of violence and one of the most ignored issues. One aim of the awareness day is protecting the elderly from financial abuse.

It’s estimated that as many as 10% of older Canadians are abused in some way, and one in five Canadians believe they know someone who may be experiencing elder abuse. While elder financial abuse and physical/mental abuse in Canada can occur in nursing homes, it could also happen in private homes or in the community.

To bring attention to this important topic, we look at the different types of elder abuse, warning signs of elder financial abuse, preventing elder financial abuse and what to do if you suspect elder financial abuse.

The different types of elder abuse

Given the fragile physical and mental state of some older people, they are often unable to defend themselves from elder financial exploitation and abuse. These are some of the types of elder abuse that they may experience:

  • Physical elder abuse– this includes causing injuries from physical actions like hitting, pushing, shaking, kicking, or restraining, as well as the harm caused by over- or under-medicating.
  • Psychological elder abuse (emotional abuse) – this amounts to any acts that damage a person emotionally. This can include insults, humiliation, threats and harassment, as well as treating them with condescension, controlling, ignoring and isolating them.
  • Elderly neglect– this occurs when an older person relies on others for their basic care and those needs are not met. Isolated people and those with serious health conditions can be the most vulnerable to neglect. Examples include not providing them with adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical attention, personal care and social interaction. Abandonment is another type of neglect.

What is elder financial abuse and what you need to know

Elder financial abuse involves taking an older person’s money or using their property without permission. This isn’t just about the financial abuse of parents, sadly, many different people are involved in elder financial exploitation. While elder financial abuse by children is one of the more common examples, grandchildren and family friends can also be guilty of it.

Examples of elder financial exploitation include:

  • forging their signature
  • stealing their money
  • using their credit cards without permission
  • coercing them to change their will or sign legal documents
  • living with them without their permission.

Financial elder abuse can also involve overcharging by home service providers or convincing them to donate to a fake charity.

Signs of elder financial abuse in Canada:

Concerned family members can look for the signs and symptoms of financial abuse in elderly relatives. Signs of elder financial exploitation can include:

  • Unusual purchases with credit cards
  • A lack of cash in their wallet
  • Large amounts of money leaving their bank account
  • Missing valuables
  • The disappearance of legal documents, such as home ownership and wills
  • Missing bank statements
  • Unpaid bills or eviction notices
  • Reluctance to discuss financial discrepancies

Other signs of financial abuse in the elderly are large mood swings or depression.

How you can spot the signs of elder abuse

Elder abuse prevention relies on noticing the signs of abuse, but this can be tricky because some symptoms can be similar to those of frailty or dementia. However, there are some warning signs of elder abuse that should alert you to the possibility that your friend or loved one is being abused.

Signs of physical elder abuse:

  • Constant bruises, cuts or burns
  • Bone fractures or sprains
  • Repetitive injuries
  • Fearfulness
  • Change in behaviour when around a certain family member or caregiver
  • Torn clothing
  • A reluctance to see the doctor about injuries

Signs of psychological elder abuse (emotional abuse):

  • Appearing frightened or uncommunicative
  • Acting depressed or confused
  • Changes in personality
  • Unwilling to discuss their problems
  • Sleeping badly

Signs of elderly neglect:

  • Their clothing is dirty and unkempt
  • They are clearly not bathing or washing their hair regularly
  • Skin rashes or bedsores
  • Missing glasses, dentures or hearing aids
  • Noticeable weight loss or dehydration

Why elder abuse and financial exploitation are rarely reported

Elder abuse prevention is particularly challenging because many victims of abuse in Canada are often either reluctant to report it or unable to do so. The World Health Organization believes that as few as one in 24 cases of elder abuse is reported. They fear that their abuser will punish them if they talk, or, if they rely on them for food and shelter, that they might throw them out of their home.

Preventing elder financial abuse is even harder to tackle. One report found that only one case of elder financial exploitation out of 44 is reported. There are several reasons why elder financial abuse goes unreported:

  • The victim was unaware that there are laws protecting the elderly from financial abuse
  • The person abusing them was trusted
  • They were too embarrassed or ashamed to admit to being financially abused
  • They were unaware that money was being taken until it was too late
  • The victim didn’t know where to report financial abuse of the elderly

Elderly financial abuse by family members is prevalent, with usually adult children and grandchildren being the abusers. However, the effects of financial abuse can be caused by strangers, especially when it comes to fraud. Older Canadians are at greater risk from fraud by strangers, often because they are more trusting or unaware of elder financial exploitation.

We all need to know how to protect the elderly from financial abuse. We need to be aware of the warning signs of elder financial abuse and know where to report financial abuse of the elderly (see below).

How to help victims of elder abuse in Canada

If you think a friend or loved one may be the victim of abuse, it’s important that you talk to them to learn more and see if this is in fact the case. Ask them if they need help – they may not come to you on their own but may be more willing when prompted. Try and spend more time with them so you can see how they are treated, either at their home or in their care/nursing home.

Keep an eye out for the warning signs. Ask them if they need help with their banking and look for the warning signs of elder financial abuse. If they’re incapable of asking for help, you can do it on their behalf. It’s important that you know how to report elder financial abuse if you suspect that this is happening.

How to report elder financial abuse and physical/mental abuse in Canada

When it comes to how to protect the elderly from financial abuse or physical/mental abuse, if you think that the person may be in immediate danger, you should call 911 and explain everything you know to the police. If you suspect that someone may be a victim of elder abuse in Canada, or is at risk of being abused, there are a number of resources that can help.

There are several organizations involved in protecting the elderly from financial abuse and physical/mental abuse. Below we have listed the information of those organizations in each province and territory that you can contact when you need to know how to report elder financial abuse or physical/mental abuse. Many of them have trained counsellors who will provide safety planning and get the police involved if necessary. Each province has a different organization and/or help line dedicated to preventing elder abuse.

OntarioElder Abuse Ontario

Safety Line: 1-866-299-1011

Alberta: Elder Abuse Awareness Council

Calgary Elder Abuse Resource Line: 403-705-3250

Edmonton Abuse Help Line: 780-454-8888

British Columbia: BC Centre For Elderly Advocacy and Support

Abuse and Information Line: 1-866-437-1940

Saskatchewan: The Saskatchewan SM

Information Line: 1-888-823-2211

Manitoba: A & O: Support Services for Older Adults Manitoba: 204-956-6440

QuebecCurateur Public Quebec1-800-363‑9020

Or Quebec Elder Abuse Help Line: 1-888-489-2287

Nova Scotia: Abuse Information and Referral Line1-877-833-3377

New Brunswick: Government site with regional contacts to report elder abuse

Prince Edward Island: Local offices of Adult Protection Program

Newfoundland & LabradorAdult Protection Act Confidential Line: 1-855-376-4957

Northwest Territories:  Government services for elder abuse help

Alison McAteer House: 1-866-223-7775

Nunavut: Elders Support Phone Line1-866-684-5056

Yukon: Services and Adult Protection Unit: 1-800-661-0408 (ext. 3946)

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