The subtle way we abuse seniors

The subtle (and common) way we abuse seniors


“Can I use the car?”

Who hasn’t asked their parent that question at some point? And generally, parents love to say yes. 

What if you’re not a teen anymore, but an adult child of a senior parent? What if it’s not just the car, but the parents’ equity, a PIN number, or savings?

“It’s a slippery slope,” says Grace Balbutin, Director of Seniors Abuse and Information Line (SAIL)

Wait. What? Who’s talking about abuse? 

Not enough people, if you ask Balbutin. The subject is almost taboo. 

You might think it’s a situation you would never find yourself in; but financial abuse, particularly with older adults, is more common than you think. Financial Abuse is the most common form of Elder abuse in Canada. And, according to CanAge, a national seniors advocacy group, reports of senior abuse have increased tenfold since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic

Abuse is hard to detect because it often starts out innocently—an adult child helping a parent. I do my mom’s grocery shopping and she pays me back. I do her shopping again and she gives me her bank card and PIN. I do her shopping again and I fill up my car with gas for all my efforts. I do her shopping again and add a few small groceries to the cart for myself. I do her shopping again and do mine as well.

Here’s where we enter the grey zone

You’ve got their bank account and you’ve got some bills. Why pay for compound interest when you can just borrow their money? It’s going to be yours soon anyways, might as well put it to use. Let’s say your new business venture doesn’t pan out so well. Why not use their home as collateral? It’s a slippery slope, indeed.

Spotting the potential for abuse in your own life

Ask yourself if there are any warning signs in your own relationships: Are you putting pressure on a parent to sell their home, change their will, or give gifts? Are you living with them rent-free? Are you involving older adults in questionable business transactions – like asking them to co-sign a mortgage or invest in a business?

Your answers might surprise you. These situations happen all the time, and they’re very easy for most people to rationalize. You may feel entitled to it, because it’s only a matter of time until it becomes yours. You may see it as settling an old score for a parent’s past mistakes. You might even argue that your parent doesn’t really need their savings, but you are in desperate need due to a job loss, divorce, or addiction. There are too many reasons people use to take advantage of an older adult’s vulnerable state. 

So, how does it happen?

Every relationship falls on a spectrum of give and take — from the minute we’re born until our last breath. We arrive on the scene needing our parents to help us do just about everything. If we’re lucky, we spend our childhood, teenage, and early adult years relying on them for support. We reach a tipping point, often at mid-life, when those we initially depended upon start to need us. 

At the core of the issue is this shifting power dynamic. Whoever’s making the decisions—whether they want to or not—has an advantage. 

Take for instance, living arrangements. Adult children with kids of their own often turn to grandparents as a source of free childcare. If they’re offering room and board, that can be a win-win. But what if a part-time job shifts to full-time, or a job requires a move? Fully dependent on the child, the parent loses more and more control of their own life. Of the thousands of calls the SAIL hotline receives, a clear majority are about being exploited for money or shelter.

A move or demand for more of their time also means they lose connections with social support outside of the family. Isolation, vulnerability, and dependency are a challenging trio in these circumstances, when a win-win turns can turn to exploitation, or outright abuse. 

Every bank account has a balance, made up of all deposits and withdrawals. Relationships can have a balance too — but the transactions are made up of time, support, and being there when it matters most. Of course, relationships can’t be tracked on a spreadsheet, and hopefully, no one is actually keeping score. The warm fuzziness of it all can make it hard to identify when financial abuse is actually happening. 

Many people don’t want to identify with being abused, so it’s very hard to label yourself with that,” says Balbutin. And certainly, no one wants to think of themselves as the abuser.  

Factoring in cultural differences in adult child-parent relationships and family dynamics makes the situation even more confusing.

Suffering in silence

It’s Important to normalize talking about it. No shame, no blame, just finding ways to prevent and stop it.

“Most older people do not recognize that they are being abused or taken advantage of. Especially if they are close to or related to the person,” says Balbutin. “[They] don’t see it until too late. Sometimes even when they have lost everything they are still unable to recognize that they are being abused.”

A Vancity survey conducted by the Mustel Group of people aged 65 or older in Metro Vancouver and the Capital Regional District, reveals that more than one third (35%) of seniors who experience at least one type of financial abuse choose not to tell anyone.

Of those respondents who say they did not report incidences of abuse, 15% were embarrassed by the situation and 10% feared it would make the situation worse or result in retaliation.

The survey indicates that 21% of seniors who experienced financial abuse and did not report it say it was because they didn’t know who to tell.

“Seniors should not suffer in silence,” said Catherine Ludgate, manager of community investment at Vancity. The first step is to tell someone and get some help. And sometimes, telling another family member might help. When the abuse has come about as a slide from good intention to abuse, a simple intervention by a family member can potentially stop and reverse that slide.”

No matter what term you use — abuse, exploitation, taking advantage of — it’s important to talk about it and the underlying issues now. You may find your parents or another older adult relying on you sooner than later. And one day, you might find yourself handing over the car keys or your PIN number to your own children.

More tips on preventing senior financial abuse can be found here.

If you’re looking for information or advice on seniors’ financial abuse, or suspect someone you know is being taken advantage of, call SAIL at 604-437-1940 or 1-866-437-1940.

Vancity offers a learning module on Seniors Financial Wellness as part of its Each One, Teach One Financial Literacy series; check here to find out more.

This article was updated on May 5, 2020.

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