Robbing our aged (NZ)

It was a shocking photograph.

Two weeks ago, Brenda Schwass-Arnold, her face twisted, snarled expletives at photographers as police led her across the grounds of Nelson’s courthouse.

The 45-year-old had just admitted 203 charges of stealing almost $30,000 from Motueka woman Joyce Cherry, the 72-year-old mother of her ex-partner. She was jailed for two years and three months.

For Schwass-Arnold’s younger sister, Debbie Apera, the sentencing, the photograph and the accompanying story in the Nelson Mail on February 28 were more unpleasantness in a nightmare that’s been going on for years.

It’s not the first time Schwass-Arnold has stolen from vulnerable people. In Nelson in June 2007, on Elder Abuse Awareness Day, she was jailed for 18 months for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from her and Mrs Apera’s sick and dying grandmother. Both the elderly women she fleeced had dementia.

“She managed to take away everything – pre-paid funerals, everything,” Mrs Apera says now. “There was nothing left. We ended up forking out for everything, and then all the lawyers’ bills for getting her charged.”

Her sister had even emptied their childhood “baby bank book” accounts, into which her granny had faithfully banked money every birthday and Christmas.

“She appeared on the front page then too, and she didn’t learn,” Mrs Apera says. “There is no miracle pill, no therapy to help these people.”

She is determined her sister will not get away with it again, and wants to warn others about the irreparable damage it can cause.

“Funerals are a hard enough and stressful time for people, but when they find out there’s been mismanagement they split families apart.”

But her sister’s is far from an isolated case. In early January, another woman, Myrna Joseph, was sentenced to 12 months’ jail in Nelson District Court after she used the bank card of a bedridden woman for whom she was caring to pay for her own groceries and car registration.

Elder abuse – whether financial, emotional or physical – can be shattering. Amongst other dirty little New Zealand secrets – child abuse, sexual abuse, problem gambling, alcoholism, neglect and violence – elder abuse is veiled behind a curtain of shame, silence, and quiet desperation.

But it’s happening more often than the wider population might realise. Nelson’s Age Concern, an older person’s advocacy and support organisation, receives about five referrals a week, of which two-thirds are then confirmed to be cases of abuse. The most common complaint is financial – people stealing money off the elderly.

Shocking though those figures are in our small region, there’s no way they’re indicative of the real problem.

Age Concern Nelson manager Sue Tilby says only 16 per cent of elder abuse is reported, and not all of it comes through their service. We might well be regularly shocked by headlines outing poor care in rest homes, but it seems that, in many cases, elderly people are worse off in the hands of their own flesh and blood.

A Victoria University working paper released in November last year found that most of the perpetrators of financial elder abuse are family members – especially adult sons, daughters to a lesser extent, and their partners. They’re responsible for up to 80 per cent of financial abuse cases. These are the people, the report says, who have the opportunities – and perhaps also a sense of entitlement.

Up to 35 per cent of abusers are primary caregivers, and crimes may also be carried out by financial advisers, solicitors, paid carers in the home or in residential care, and less commonly, opportunistic strangers.

Of the abused, almost three-quarters are women, with 31 per cent involving women aged over 85. Almost half of the abused live alone.

Age Concern says elder abuse and neglect occur for many reasons – disagreements between siblings about assets like the family home, siblings blocking access to funds, or grandchildren taking money out of their grandparents’ accounts. The strain of caring for someone with dementia can take a toll too.

Or, as Mrs Apera puts it, it could happen simply because it’s too easy to let a few lapses here and there – such as putting milk and bread on Gran’s eftpos card when picking up her groceries – slide into the extreme. The money can also be impossible to recover.

In 2010, as Mrs Cherry’s health declined, Schwass-Arnold started looking after her more often and became familiar with bank account details and passwords, which the older woman had written down. She started taking money out of the savings account, withdrawing $100 at a time; maxed out her credit card to $11,000, and kept Mrs Cherry’s eftpos card in her purse, where police later found it.

Schwass-Arnold simply frittered away $28,452 on food, petrol, and items from the $2 Shop, Mitre 10 and the Warehouse.

The toll is massive, and not just for the person who’s lost their money. When Mrs Apera spoke out after her sister’s sentencing, saying the sentence was not long enough and Schwass-Arnold was a “pathological liar” and a “predator” who would rip off people again when she was released, angry members of her family questioned why she’d want to air their dirty laundry in public.

Mrs Apera says she was speaking out for what was right. Her sister’s offending has tarnished the family – but she’s now finding herself alert for her next move. “I’m trying to keep communities safe by tracking her; if I lose track of her she commits something else. I’m tired now. I’ve had enough.”

Most complaints will never make it to court. Last year, one Nelson woman in her 80s, who we’ll call Mrs Brown, gave her daughter money under duress and says the stress has ruined her health. She feels robbed. The little money she has, she says, is meant to last her the rest of her life.

She says she didn’t see much of her daughter, until one day when she “stormed in” crying and said she needed $30,000, although she wouldn’t say for what purpose. Mrs Brown didn’t have it – but gave her daughter, who she’d given power of attorney, $10,000. If she’d said no, she believes her daughter would have hit her.

She’s too scared to broach the subject with her daughter, but wants others to be careful.

“You do articles on abuse on children, and I thought, well, I know there’s a lot of elderly who are getting abused by their family [too],” she says.

“People don’t talk about it. It’s something you don’t talk about to anybody … but you feel guilty that your daughter would do that sort of thing.”

She’s sure health problems that have flared up recently are linked to the strain she feels over giving in to her daughter.

Age Concern elder abuse and neglect prevention adviser, Jess Breeze, says victims are often scared to speak up, thinking it’s only happening to them.

“Of late it’s mostly been older people giving out their Pin numbers that’s been the most common [situation],” she says. “What are the repercussions if you give someone your Pin number? Because a lot of people just think: `It’s my daughter, I trust her’; but they don’t realise [what could happen].”

When Mrs Breeze first started at the service, elder abuse was “almost a taboo topic”.

“Just like child abuse used to be,” she says. “But there’s lots of people who still do [think that].”

For about half the older people supported by Age Concern over the past 10 years, the abuse has affected their health. Two out of every five people experienced a significant reduction in their independence, loss of confidence and self esteem, and said they were feeling very frightened, anxious and emotionally distressed. About a quarter experienced long-term consequences.

Financial abuse also seems to be worsening. The Victoria University report found that financial abuse as a percentage of total cases rose from 27 per cent in 2006-07 to 35 per cent in the last financial year. By the late 2020s, a million New Zealanders will be over 65; it would be natural to expect that as our numbers of elderly rise, so too will the cases of abuse.

Mrs Breeze certainly expects to see more; particularly as the topic is opened up for discussion, some of the stigma removed and there’s an increase in the numbers of people living longer and suffering more cognitive problems late in life. “Families often aren’t as connected as they perhaps used to be,” she says. “There’s a lot of lonely and isolated people. I think we’re only reaching a certain amount of them.”

Mrs Breeze says a lot of cases are to do with people abusing their positions of holding enduring power of attorney or a welfare guardianship order (under the Protection of Personal and Property Rights Act). “That’s why we really hammer it [for elderly people] to know all about enduring powers of attorney,” she says. If an elderly person suspects they’re being ripped off, particularly by a trusted family member, they can feel extremely vulnerable.

“It’s really traumatic for them. A lady I went to see the other day just felt so belittled.”

Or they may not have been ripped off at all – just disorganised. One local man, who we’ll call Mr Smith, contacted the Nelson Mail and said that when he had a stroke, he woke up and “everything was gone”. “I don’t even know where my bank balance went,” he says.

He had no plans in place for what might happen with his assets or healthcare if he fell suddenly ill, and his care was handed to his children, who had to make some quick decisions. “I don’t think anyone intended to be dishonest,” he says. “They were doing the best thing they thought they could do. The misfortune was that I was not able to speak whilst I was afflicted with the stroke.”

His son, who took charge of his father’s care and also doesn’t want to be named, says it’s vital to plan for old age while you’re young. When his father fell ill and was then deemed unable to care for himself, they had to be awarded power of attorney to get him the accommodation and care that he needed.

“My father didn’t have anything in place,” he says. “Don’t wait until you’re old and broke and incapable of functioning properly because things will happen that you may not want to have happened. By that time you may not be able to influence it.

“Medical systems provide care at a very basic level, but unless you’ve got people around you, you’re on your own.”

Mrs Breeze says financial safety comes down to family and community connections, and says communities need to weave a wide net of people around those who may be vulnerable. There’s also a charge of ageism causing a lack of respect. As Dominion Post columnist Rosemary McLeod pointed out in a recent column on ageing, a European Social Survey of 55,000 people across 28 countries found the greatest inter-generational split ever, with half of all Britons admitting they don’t have a friend over 70, most believing old age equals weakness and unhappiness, and two out of five people saying they’ve experienced a lack of respect because of their age.

Perhaps it’s the same here, too. Mrs Breeze cites a Massey University study on social isolation that found just over half of elderly respondents felt lonely and isolated, with eight per cent chronically so.

Age Concern manager Sue Tilby says there’s an obvious and definite connection between severe loneliness, isolation and elder abuse. “They’re way more vulnerable,” she says. “Some of it is definitely due to the demographic population growing so much, but also due to the fact that families are really busy and don’t have much time. People are looking for connections to other people and are often attracting the wrong [ones].

“Doctors are often the first to see people and they need to be ensuring that they are trying to do something about it if they see a lonely or isolated person in need. All of these people we don’t know about – it’s just tragic.”

“We’re really out there and really trying to show the community that they can help,” Mrs Breeze says. “It’s talking about it. It’s being confident enough to talk about finances, knowing where to go, getting in early and not waiting until people have medical problems, are isolated and lonely before they interact.”

Mrs Breeze, for one, is pleased about the upcoming Crimes Amendment Bill, which will include protection of vulnerable adults.

“That’s fantastic because it’s showing that we should be accountable if we know something,” she says. “We should be voicing what we think is happening. As a community we can all have a part in trying to prevent this.”

Mrs Apera says avoiding financial elder abuse comes down to education and laws. She believes families need to be formally and transparently accountable for the finances of the elder people in their care. Make two family members accountable for each other’s actions; separate accounts with different Pin numbers so transactions can be traced; ensure elderly people are aware of what could happen and are alert to sob stories or missing bank statements in the mail. Carers and those with power of attorney should also protect themselves against accusations of theft.

“There should be a yearly audit done on anybody that is taking care of people’s finances,” she says. “When my sister stole from my grandmother’s estate, she got an enduring power of attorney, which was easy to get. There was no accountability. Agencies, like Public Trust, any financial institutes; they’re audited regularly.

“Who’s auditing the families? No-one.”


Robbing our aged
Naomi Arnold
March 10, 2012