Thousands of seniors around the world suffer abuse every day. In response to these growing numbers, June 15 has been designated World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and is commemorated across Canada. This Manitoba senior suffered financial abuse at the hands of her own son and wanted to share her tragic story, hoping it may help someone else.
Margaret (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) hasn’t seen her grandchildren in almost a year. Her voice strains with emotion when she talks about the betrayal and broken relationship with her only son and his family. After a lengthy legal battle that still isn’t resolved, Margaret finally regained control of her own finances, after removing the power of attorney she had given her son, but this has come at a terrible price.
“I didn’t see him on Mother’s Day. I wish he would just apologize so I could forgive him; he’s my only son. But he’s left me with nothing…” Margaret stops talking and looks away, holding her hands up to her face. Despite what he has done to her, she is still a mother who loves her son.
Margaret is one of the thousands of Canadian seniors who have suffered financial abuse at the hands of a family member. The most common form of elder abuse, financial abuse, is defined by the Winnipeg Police Service as, “any actions, with or without the knowledge and/or consent of an older adult, which results in the loss of money, property or possessions.” This, says WPS, “could include the theft of pension cheques through deceit or other forms of emotional manipulation and the misuse of power of attorney, joint bank accounts or credit cards.”
According to an overview from the Canadian Centre of Elder Law, if the abuser is an adult child, he/she may be experiencing financial problems or a recent job loss. They may also have underlying mental health or addiction issues. “The abuser may rationalize the mistreatment with a false sense of entitlement toward the senior’s money or belongings: e.g. I am the only daughter, I deserve the money.” Whatever the rationalization, the impact of abuse by a family member is devastating.
Margaret always felt responsible for her son’s economic well-being, knowing he wasn’t very good with money. He asked her to pay off his credit card debt twice and help with the mortgage so he wouldn’t lose his house. There was always a promise to pay back the money, which never came.
Margaret’s life took a turn for the worse when she lost her beloved husband 10 years ago. Living alone for the first time, she started drinking to help cope with the pain and loneliness. Her health quickly deteriorated to the point she was no longer able to care for herself. She signed power of attorney over to her son, who insisted on moving in to take care of her. After a serious fall, Margaret moved to a personal care home to receive 24-hour-a-day care while her son continued to live in her home.
It wasn’t long until things started to change with her son. He would tell Margaret there was no extra money to get her hair done or buy snacks. “Where has all my money gone?” she asked him. Indignant, he would reply that taking care of her was expensive. “He made me feel so guilty,” Margaret explained. She had worked hard during her younger years and had a good pension, savings in the bank and a line of credit. She was suspicious, but trusted her son had her best interest at heart.
Within two years, Margaret’s health improved dramatically under the excellent care of the staff at the personal care home. She was reassessed by the geriatric team and deemed ready to leave the home to live in an assisted living facility. Margaret was thrilled, as she missed her independence. Her son, however, was not. He refused to give her access to her own financial accounts and insisted she was not ready to live on her own. Margaret felt she had no choice but to remove her son as power of attorney and appoint another family member.
By the time the dust settled, she was almost destitute. He had maxed out her line of credit, drained her bank account and racked up thousands of dollars on a credit card in Margaret’s name. “It’s very hurtful you know,” she explained, her eyes welling with tears. “I would have left it all to him anyway when I was gone. Why couldn’t he just have waited?” Margaret moved into an assisted living facility in April and will return to court in a few months.
Dara Maternick, coordinator for Prevent Elder Abuse Manitoba (PEAM) said Margaret’s situation is a growing concern across the country and experts believe that for every report of elder abuse, there are another four cases that go unreported. “We want to help change that,” Dara explained. “The 633 calls to the Senior Abuse Support Line last year are probably just the tip of the iceberg.”
Since 2002, the Manitoba government has led a provincial elder abuse strategy that includes support for PEAM, a central point of contact for elder abuse prevention. PEAM partnered with the Credit Union Association of Manitoba to develop an online course for employees to help them recognize financial abuse when it happens and to respond with the appropriate help.
To date, 85 per cent of credit union employees have taken the course. “It is important for people to carefully consider and plan for how their finances will be managed as they grow older. Manitoba credit unions are now well positioned to provide knowledgeable advice to their members to help prevent these situations from occurring.”
If you or someone you love has been the victim of elder abuse of any kind, you can call the Seniors Abuse Support Line at 1-888-896-7183. You can also call the intake line at A&O: Support Services for Older Adults at 204-956-6440. They provide elder abuse support and counseling to Manitobans aged 55 and older. Concerned family and friends are also encouraged to call A&O if they need information on how to help. All calls are strictly confidential.