Vulnerable clients: Spotting elder abuse during Covid-19
21 July 2020
Emma Harris, senior associate in the Private Client department at Payne Hicks Beach, says during Covid-19 when the elderly are less likely to see many people, they can be more vulnerable and open to abuse. So, what is elder abuse? How do you spot it? And what can you do about it?
The term ‘Elder Abuse’ has no legal status and no clear definition.
By way of example, the Commission on Equality and Human Rights defines the term as ‘……a single or repeated act. It may be physical, verbal or psychological. It may be an act or omission of an act or may occur when a vulnerable person is persuaded to enter into a financial or sexual transaction to which he or she has not consented or cannot consent. Abuse can occur in any relationship and result in significant harm and exploitation of the person subjected to it.’
It is, however, generally acknowledged that elder abuse can take several forms which include financial, physical, sexual, emotional and psychological.
Elder abuse can be difficult to identify and the perception of what constitutes abuse is a subjective matter.
The charity Hourglass, which champions combatting elder abuse, commissioned a poll in January which had rather surprising findings.
The poll found 1 in 3 UK residents did not believe that ‘acts of domestic violence directed towards an older person’ count as elder abuse and 49% of the people surveyed reported ‘not attending to an older person’s needs in a timely fashion’ does not constitute elder abuse either.
Troublingly, the charity estimates that more than a million older people experience abuse or neglect in the UK every year.
Hourglass also asserts that assaults and domestic murders involving older people surge by as much as 25% during a festive season as the result of it being a time of financial strain and close proximity of family members. It is not difficult to see that the ramifications of Covid-19 are likely to cause the incidence of elder abuse to rise further. Potentially the risk of elder abuse has increased further during lockdown for older persons who no longer retain mental capacity, and have their affairs managed by an attorney under a Lasting or Enduring power of attorney, or a deputy under an order from the Court of Protection, as their attorney or deputy will have been unable to meet with them for several months to check on their wellbeing and that their affairs remain in order.
It is therefore vitally important that advisers acting for elderly or vulnerable clients are aware of the warning signs and what can be done to help anyone they suspect is a victim of elder abuse.
Tell-tale signs of abuse?
Abuse occurs in many settings and, as shown above, it can be difficult to identify, especially due to the narrow distinction between poor practice and abuse.
Some of the indicators of financial and physical abuse include:
What to do if you suspect elder abuse
First, if there is concern around breaching the older person’s confidentiality or trust when considering whether to report the issue, it is worth bearing in mind the effect of section 5 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which allows any person who is taking action which relates to the care and treatment of a person who lacks mental capacity to be protected from liability so long as the action taken was in their best interests.
There are various options which can be explored if you suspect abuse and careful thought will need to be given as to which one or combination of options will be the best in the circumstances.
A selection of the options available are:
Whilst elder abuse is not something anyone wants to encounter in practice, it is perhaps more prevalent than many imagine. It is important to bear this in mind and be on the lookout for warning signs when dealing with older persons.
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