Elder Abuse - a very real concern

by Paul Russell:

Elder Abuse is a serious issue. The abuse of elderly people by unscrupulous relatives or carers or people who befriend a lone elder with sinister motive vexes authorities.

Why? Because it is a mostly hidden phenomenon of people who will have a diminished ability to speak out by virtue of the abuse itself or because of their isolation.

Characterised mostly by greed over finances, elder abuse has also been noted as physical, emotional and even sexual abuse of a vulnerable elderly person.

The image of such a person is perhaps of one who is aware of the abuse but has no ability to complain. This may not always be the case. It is also possible that a person offers excellent care and support of an individual at all times and uses their friendship and influence to have the elderly person make over their estate to them at the exclusion of any other beneficiary.

The recent story of a nurse gaining the full estate of an elderly Melbourne man may well be such a case. I say 'may be' deliberately because, to date, no case has been proven against Abha Anuradha Kumar, who managed aged care facility Cambridge House, where Lionel Cox was being cared for.

Friends of Mr Cox have questioned the new will created only weeks before Mr Cox passed away witnessed by two other staff at the care facility. Spellng corrections, shaky handwriting and other errors in the drawing up of the newest will cast additional suspicions. Ms Kumar stands to gain more than $AU900,000.

The parent organisation fo the nursing home, St Vincent's Health, conducted an inquiry and could not prove any wrong doing. A spokeswoman for St Vincents said that, "The staff member has indicated they have not, and do not want to financially benefit from the resident's Will, and intends to donate the proceeds of the estate to charities named by the deceased in a previous unsigned Will he had prepared by his solicitor."

Friends and neighbours of Mr Cox remain sceptical.

Kathy Wilson, a specialist wills and estates lawyer and principal at Aitken Partners, told The Age Newspaper that 'there was very little protection against financial elder abuse with wills, and that there is no criminal offence for coercion or manipulation of a person in relation to their will.'

'She said there were weaker rules regarding who could witness a will than for appointing somebody Enduring Powers of Attorney. The law for the latter has recently been updated to include specific qualifications for witnesses.'

'Ms Wilson said it was also very difficult to prosecute a case of undue influence with wills because it was hard to prove under the current law.'

If it is difficult to prove financial abuse in such cases, then it is difficult to detect all kinds of abuse of a vulnerbale elderly person. This one reason why euthanasia and assisted suicide should never be made law.

Andrew Denton dismissed this argument on one occasion claiming that the person would need to have a terminal illness or unbearable suffering. In terms of abuse of euthanasia and assisted suicide laws, it would rather depend on how the law was written. Certainly, in most cases, two doctors would need to be involved and, yes, that may reduce the risk. But given that the existence of laws allowing people to be made dead may well add to the sense that the elderly often have of being a burden; and adding to that suggestions or even direct pressure on the person in private, the risk cannot be eliminated.

The risk is perhaps even more acute for assisted suicide laws. An elderly and suffering person may well request assisted suicide voluntarily and with clear intent. But it still remains that, once the doctor is gone, a relative could easily pressure such a person to 'take the lethal dose' when, as seems often to be the case, they had determined to put off the suicide to a later date or even not at all. Who would ever know?

The risk to vulnerable people, for which elder abuse is a particular subset, can never be fully accounted for in euthanasia or assisted suicide law. The first major investigation of the issue by The UK House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics found as much and it remains true today.

Speaking to the Report in The Lords, Lord Walton, in summary observed:

One compelling reason underlying this conclusion was that we do not think it is possible to set secure limits on voluntary euthanasia. As our report shows, we took account of the present situation in the Netherlands; indeed some of us visited that country and talked to doctors, lawyers and others. While we accept the sincerity of those who fervently advocated the present procedures that exist there, and while it would not be proper for me to criticise the decisions of the medical and legal authorities in another sovereign state, we nevertheless returned from our visit feeling uncomfortable, especially in the light of evidence indicating that non-voluntary euthanasia—that is to say, without the specific consent of the individual—was commonly performed in Holland, admittedly for incompetent, terminally ill patients. We also learned of one specific case in which voluntary euthanasia was accepted by both doctors and lawyers for a physically fit 50 year-old woman alleged to be suffering from intolerable mental stress. We felt particularly uncomfortable about that and about other examples. We concluded that it would be virtually impossible to ensure that all acts of euthanasia were truly voluntary and that any liberalisation of the law in the United Kingdom could not be abused. We were also concerned that vulnerable people—the elderly, lonely, sick or distressed—would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death.

It remains to euthanasia and assisted suicide enthusiasts to prove that such risks have been eliminated; not reduced, but eliminated. Passing any law without marking such full and complete protection of vulnerable people is extremely reckless and speaks of abandonment of those most in need of protection.