Spiralling house prices are fuelling rising levels of elder abuse in Australia. This wickedness can, however, be addressed if there is the political and public will to put a stronger legal safety net under vulnerable elderly people.
Growing numbers of older people are being pressured by adult children to guarantee enormous loans. Legal aid commissions regularly deal with elderly parents who have gone guarantor without understanding they will be legally liable for the debt if the borrower defaults. This problem will only worsen unless we require lenders to ensure older Australians have independent legal and financial advice before these individuals offer their home to secure a loan or agree to be guarantor. As well, there should be a "cooling off" period within which guarantors can withdraw from the arrangement.
The pressure on older people can be immense. Adult children sometimes deny access to grandchildren if an elderly parent does not agree to be a guarantor or provide funds for a home deposit. Legal Aid family law divisions regularly provide advice to grandparents about gaining access to grandchildren. All too often, we hear of conversations that go like this: "Mum, if we can't get funds to complete our deposit, and get a guarantor for our loan, we'll have to move interstate. The other option is that we move in with you at your place. It's too big for you since Dad died."
The boom in property prices has resulted in a spike in the numbers of adult children taking over an elderly parent's home and refusing to move out. Vulnerable parents are unable to free themselves of an abusive son or daughter who insists on living rent-free. This is often compounded by physical or emotional abuse. One woman in her 80s was repeatedly beaten by her 45-year-old son who rejected her pleas for him to move out. He had access to his frail mother's bank accounts, restricted her social activities and allowed her only a small amount of her pension.
At times, rising house prices result in an adult child persuading an elderly parent to sell up and buy a home with them. Problems arise when the relationship between parent and child breaks down and cohabitation can no longer continue. Legal aid commissions have come across many cases where the older person thought they were jointly purchasing the new property but it subsequently turned out they were not registered on the title.
Legal assistance is vital to empower vulnerable older Australians and to reduce elder abuse. However, court action isn't always the solution where families are involved. It can be costly, long and emotionally painful. There is another choice though; across Australia, legal aid commissions are quietly resolving thousands of high-conflict family law disputes involving separated couples who disagree about the living arrangements for children. Legal aid commissions run these family dispute resolution mediation services to enable separated couples to resolve their differences, with the assistance of a lawyer, outside a courtroom. These services have an impressive 80 per cent success rate in settling disputes. Many people affected by civil law elder abuse disputes would benefit if legal aid commissions were funded to extend this service to them. It would enable civil disputes involving family members to be resolved outside court, through a process that can be much swifter and less painful than courtroom litigation.
Australians are living to unprecedented ages at a time when their adult children and adult grandchildren face unprecedented housing prices. I must stress that financial abuse is not the only form of abuse affecting older Australians. Legal aid commissions provide assistance on a daily basis to elder abuse victims whose mistreatment includes physical, psychological or sexual harm. However, financial abuse is becoming more prevalent and this emerging issue requires a vigorous response from the community.
In recent times Australia has risen to the challenge of addressing the scourge of domestic violence. The issue of elder abuse requires a commitment of similar proportions.
- Dr Graham Hill is the chairman of National Legal Aid, the peak body representing legal aid commissions in all states and territories.