Tan Ee Lyn
Hong Kong. Thin, frail and slightly demented, 83-year-old Yuk Po approached social workers for help after learning that her daughter had invested her lifesavings in Lehman Brothers’ minibonds, the notorious financial instruments that went bust in late 2008.
When the social workers made their checks, they confirmed the old woman was indeed penniless but not among the list of Lehman creditors in Hong Kong. Simply put, she had been cheated of around HK$500,000 (US$64,000) by her own daughter.
“It’s up to her if she wants to cheat me. What can I do? I have to depend on her,” Yuk said with a blank stare in her small, sparsely-furnished rented government flat.
Most of her belongings, including her bed and wardrobe, were donated. In her kitchen were scraps of leftovers, half-finished bowls of rice that she was planning to eat for dinner.
Yuk’s plight is far from uncommon.
With Asia’s aging population and the rising prevalence of dementia, fraud committed against the elderly — often by family members and friends — is growing, social workers say.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and affects 10 percent of those over 70 and 30 percent of those over 80. It robs people of their memory, thinking, judgment, language and behavior, leaving them unable to manage their own affairs and vulnerable to abuse.
“We come across cases so often of children removing money from an old person’s bank account and the old person complains to us, saying the son or daughter had removed their money, or borrowed their money and never returned it,” said Foo Wai-lok of the Association Against Elderly Abuse in Hong Kong.
Foo’s colleague Roy Lam added: “We are now handling a case, where the son told the mother to sign a document a few years ago giving him the power-of-attorney on a flat she owned.”
“Now, a few years later, the son has stopped supporting the mother and when she tried to get rent earned from the property, she found out she had passed the ownership to her son.”
Feature of Developed Societies?
Such elderly abuse in Asia appears to be more keenly felt in developed societies such as Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.
“Before, people were more traditional and there was more respect for elderly people. Now, they are less tightly-knit, people no longer observe traditions as strongly and there is less respect for the elderly,” Foo said.
“There is now more psychological and financial abuse due to a loss of traditional culture.”
David Dai of the Hong Kong Alzheimer’s Disease Association said: “In richer societies, there is an increasing trend of disputes. There are plenty of people with assets who die intestate. Because there is no one to execute their will, they (family members) take it to guardianship.”
“In developing countries … they are more traditional and united and they look after their old. There are less medical interventions to keep people alive and they are less litigious.”
In Singapore, growing disputes and fraud involving assets of elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease became serious enough for parliament to enact a “Mental Capacity Act” in 2008, much like the one Britain created in 2005.
“The Act created a new instrument called ‘lasting power of attorney’ allowing people to appoint a deputy while they are still of sound mind” said Patrick Tan, a practicing lawyer in Singapore at the forefront of a campaign to raise awareness of legal protection for the elderly.
“If one becomes mentally incapacitated, the appointed deputy can step forward and manage affairs without spending extra money and going to court,” he told Reuters.
Nearly every day, small teams of lawyers in Singapore give free advice at a few grassroots centers, educating people on the need to nominate a “deputy” to safeguard their assets. Deputies make decisions covering the older person’s welfare and assets, pre-empting any attempts by other people to exploit the person’s deteriorating mental faculties.
In Australia, people are advised upon entering an aged care home to make wills, “end of life wishes” and name a power-of-attorney to manage their assets when they become mentally incapacitated. “End of life wishes” is an instruction on whether to resuscitate a person after a cardiac or respiratory arrest.
Most Suffer in Silence
While these various forms of legal protection are slowly becoming available, experts say they are underused as people are generally ignorant about them due to insufficient publicity.
In 2010, social workers in Hong Kong received more than 2,185 requests for help from elderly people. Of these, 1,182 involved assets being stolen, up 40 percent compared to 2009.
Anita Wong, elderly services director of the Hong Kong Chinese Women’s Club, says more than half of elderly abuse cases involve victims suffering from mental deterioration.
“There is a lot of financial abuse. Many of the elderly have dementia, so they don’t know how to manage their money. If they have money, it is easy to be abused or have their money spent by their children,” said Wong.
“We are now handling a few such cases. One involves a daughter removing HK$70,000 (US$9,000) from the mother’s account over the last three years. We only found out when the mother complained incessantly to us,” she said.
Much of the abuse, she said, is perpetrated by family members.
The problem will worsen with rising prevalence of dementia. Alzheimer’s Disease International estimated there were 35.6 million people living with dementia worldwide in 2010 and that will increase to 65.7 million by 2030 and 115.4 million by 2050.
Some argue for specific laws to protect the elderly, much like laws to protect children and animals from neglect, mental and physical abuse. This is critical because in Asia, people are reluctant to even acknowledge discord within the family, let alone report abuse of any kind.
“Old people will not tell when their children bully them or cheat them of their money because they don’t want their relatives and neighbors to laugh at them,” said Lam.
“Those who sue their sons and daughters in civil suits are very rare and they only do so because they have lost a property that gives them access to monthly income.”
But Wong believes it will be hard to alter behaviors that have lasted so long.
“It is taboo to leak such matters out of the home, they feel embarrassed. They are anxious that if it comes to light, their children may be thrown in jail, so they won’t report the matter. Even if others report the matter, they will not bear witness. So a lot of such problems are swept under the carpet,” she said.
“Without a law now, the elderly may still make some noise and hope you will help them. But once there is a law, we must take legal action and their children risk going to jail. So old people would be even more afraid to complain.”