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When 81-year-old David Jansen ended up in hospital last year, a friend and a relative visited regularly and offered to look after his affairs and serve as his power of attorney.
“I was very sick with a high fever and could hardly breathe or see,” Jansen told The Epoch Times, using a pseudonym due to privacy concerns. “So they said ‘here’s the documents, sign it, it’s about us looking after things for you,’ and I believed them.”
Now, as he begins to recover, Jansen is shocked to learn the people he trusted have taken control of almost everything he owns, including his home, income from rental properties, and bank account.
“I’m running very short of money,” he said, adding he’s cashed in his retirement savings plan, which is about all he has left.
The two visitors who came to see him daily in the hospital now won’t return his calls or give him a copy of the document he signed.
He’s hired a lawyer but has learned that the courts are backlogged because of the pandemic. The police promised to investigate but now say they won’t take action since the matter is before the court.
Stories like this are all too familiar to Christine Chan, a seniors support consultant with the York-Fairbank Centre for Seniors in York, Ontario.
“Most Ontarians think there must be a system in place … that will respond to these situations, and they suffer deep disappointment when they realize they’re on their own,” she said in an interview.
Chan says governments at all levels rarely fund elder abuse response. “What they do fund is senior support services that sometimes have a little team that may deal with vulnerable seniors—and you’ll be very lucky to find that type of program.”
Doreen Risler, who is also using a pseudonym due to privacy concerns, told The Epoch Times that “it’s been a nightmare” advocating for her elderly parents, still with no end in sight.
Her parents had been living in their own home with help from a live-in caregiver. After her father became ill, one of Risler’s sisters offered to bring him to her home for a few days, but later refused to let him return to his own house.
The same thing then happened to her mother, and Risler and her other siblings were denied access to their parents.
“I had to get a lawyer to write a letter,” she said. “The heat got turned up when [two of the siblings] decided to sell my parents’ home, using a fraudulent power of attorney.”
She also discovered that a large sum of money had been transferred out of her parents’ joint bank account without explanation.
Risler says she received no help.
“I notified everyone I could: the bank, the real estate council. I contacted the public guardian and got the runaround there. … I wrote to the minister responsible.”
The perception, based in part on public messaging, is that help in such situations is a phone call away.
However, Chan says “there are actually very few services, and those that exist have got criteria that are so tight that it only serves a small proportion of people.”
The Ontario government’s Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee, for example, will only consider helping abused seniors if they’re mentally incapable. Chan says most seniors being abused are mentally capable.
At the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, the senior must have a “low income.” Chan says many abused seniors “are not poor enough to qualify for our free government services and not rich enough to hire their own lawyer.”
Others have called Legal Aid Ontario only to learn it doesn’t take cases involving elder abuse.
Your chance of getting police assistance is better if you live in a city or region with a police department that has an elder abuse unit or senior support officer, notes Chan, but very few do. Toronto, for example, doesn’t.
A complicating factor is that cases involving elder abuse can be murky and complex.
“Even though they may be sympathetic, there will be very little action from the police because they may deem it as a family conflict, and a domestic dispute,” Chan says.
Other barriers include societal ageism and professionals lacking experience with elder issues.
Chan says police officers, or care providers straight out of school, may not have gone through the life stages to realize what it’s like to have an older parent or deal with a sibling who’s now managing your parents’ money.
“To then ask them to come in and understand the situation, it requires some kind of a leap of imagination because our society is very poor at sharing those stories,” she said.
The program, which is provided by Chan and a colleague at the York-Fairbank Centre for Seniors, has so far assisted 78 seniors. But they only work part time and the service operates on a one-year Trillium grant of $25,000, with no guarantee it will continue.
Financial Abuse Most Common
Chan says she feels honoured to be entrusted with the stories seniors share with her but is disheartened by their experiences. The most common scenarios involve adult children taking financial advantage of their elderly parents, which often goes unreported for years.
“Their abuse has been normalized. They accept what their abusers do to them,” Chan said. “They’ll say ‘I don’t want to upset my son. I don’t want to make him angry.’”
She sees it as her job to awaken them to the abusive behaviour. “They think their child will magically correct.”
By the time many seniors finally reach out for help, the situation is threatening their survival, Chan said. “If it didn’t, they wouldn’t tell anybody. They are long-suffering, especially those in their 70s to 90s.”
Seniors may often feel a sense of shame about the abuse or worry about possible isolation if they report the abusing family member, she said.
Scams are another common form of elder abuse, which may originate with people the senior knows, such as a real estate agent, financial adviser, or tradesperson.
“One man told me he paid $8,000 for a will and a power of attorney,” Chan said. “He still doesn’t realize he’s been overcharged.”
She says the two settings where reports are taken more seriously are in long-term care and retirement homes, which are governed by the Fixing Long-Term Care Act and the Retirement Homes Act. In these cases, the forms of abuse are defined along with associated penalties.
But she said only 7 percent of seniors live in those settings.
‘It Takes a Toll’
Jansen may be in a better position than many, with the resources to hire a lawyer, but even that’s no guarantee of a quick resolution, as he’s learned. He’s been told a court date could be two to three years away.
In the meantime, his finances continue to dwindle while the problems seem never-ending. When Jansen discovered charges being rung up on his credit cards, for example, he tried to cancel the cards but was told he would have to do so in person, something he’s unable to do due to his poor health.
Risler, in her fourth year since her ordeal began, says “it’s been a long, painful road.”
Her father has died, and she’s now focusing on trying to get access to her mother before it’s too late.
“The banks, and others, they’re not going to look out for us, no matter what they say about taking elder abuse seriously,” she said. “It takes a toll on you emotionally.”
While the public often hears of elder abuse occurring in care facilities, the reality is it’s much broader than that, Chan says.
“It’s happening in our families, neighbourhoods, and communities. It’s a problem we need to own and face.”
Sadly, complete elimination of abuse in any given case is difficult to achieve, she says, in part because of the dynamics involved. “Sometimes the senior doesn’t even want to fight because they don’t want to spend their golden years tied up in a court case or an altercation.”
It seems the best outcome one can hope for is some sort of improvement in the senior’s current situation.
“I just learned of two new cases today,” Chan said. “When I hear the stories, I take a deep breath, because I feel for the families and I brace myself because I wonder, do they know what’s coming up?”