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Emotional and financial abuse of elderly

Recently I witnessed, at close quarters, an incident in Bangalore where a 79-year old widow was put to emotional and financial abuse, caused by own family members in acts that propelled severe pain and distress to the frail woman. The attacks include threats, insults and humiliation as well as actions that fomented a strong fear of loneliness, shame and agony.

The son-turned-abuser has become secretive about parent’s finances, isolates the mom from others, and insists on being present when anyone else is with her. The property documents and jewellery details are suspected to have been materially altered. Even her paltry monthly pension is not spared. The defenceless victim remains riches to rags, the anathema triggered by unearned material greed.

Yes, such rip-offs are not new.  While there is definite uptick in the number of abuses, we assume that our grave risks are from strangers (on dark streets) or burglars. The sad truth is the highest domestic perils lurk within the intimate spaces of our homes, from those we are closest.

Aging, a well-recognised demographic fact, is ticking for all, even as the life expectancy creeps up. Old age was not a major problem in the earlier Indian value-based joint-family system, and our culture was respectful and supportive of elders. Originally, elder-abuse was thought of as western riddle.  However, the coping capacities of the younger and older family members are being routinely challenged.

Abuse is crime, not diagnosis

India is home to nearly 100 million elderly people, whose numbers would swell three-fold in the next three decades. It’s not only dying and getting sick the elders have to worry about. Is the financial abuse more a criminal act rather than a social taboo?

Our parents feel emotionally responsible for the economic well-being of loved ones. Some adult children encourage those nurturing instincts.  The danger lies in turning that subtle manipulation into outright financial abuse, and the “inheritance haste”, at its ugliest, can see children cross the line into criminal bearing.  It is still not known if the “mistreating” children have themselves been brought up in an “abusive” ambience.

My anguish is that the “betrayal” impact had not yet received the same attention as other forms of domestic violence such as child abuse, woman battering and sexual assault. Not only is it vastly underreported, the harassment is more conceptualised as “aging” issue, rather than as a component of adult protection. Now, decades later, albeit the abuse is publicly acknowledged, the dilemma yet remains hidden to a large extent.

Why the abuse is hidden?

Financial elder abuse is difficult to define because it often occurs within complex family relationship situations, where older people have a relationship of trust with the abuser. Cash-strapped adults use guilt or fear to push the emotional buttons.

The home is traditionally the most secured place and to think differently is nearly incomprehensible. Though neglect of helpless family members are contentious issues, we are concerned about the privacy of relationships, and it would take some nerve to report an abusive family member to law enforcement or share our plight with others.

Also, we are disturbed that we may not be believed, because the abuser acts differently in public. We feel ashamed at having raised “such” an offspring, and do not want to broadcast that our lives have come to such a pass.  This incites the spectre of placement in old-age home, a fate most elders view with horror, and perceive it as prelude to death.

While most of us resist out of parental love, that a parent should foster and financially support an adult child no matter what the child has done, some minimise the slight.  A “friend” shared with me that he had survived world war, recession and personal misfortunes, hoping the “badgering” will not last long.  However, there is still a strong ethos in this country which conveys that the most admirable people are those who suffer without complaining, and take care of themselves.

We accept dependency in our children because they need their parents for survival, and gradually become less dependent. This is not conversely true for those vulnerable adults who become dependent on their children, because of physical or mental needs.

Unusual bank account activities, additional names on bank signature card (or stealthy use of net-banking password), unexplained changes in spending patterns, forging signatures on cheques and legal documents are some areas which throw potential abuse patterns. Seniors with memory problems are “easy pickings.”

Though it takes extra effort to look after your parents when they are no longer capable, it’s an inevitable part of the circle of life and paying back a small part of the debt you owe your creators for raising you. The greying community doesn’t want to be a burden, with fuss or trouble around them. Alas, fewer and fewer are being granted that wish!

(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)

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