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Coronavirus Exposes the Vulnerability of Seniors, Importance of Good Planning

Introduction

This past June was “Elder Abuse Awareness Month” and June 15, 2020 was “World Elder Abuse Awareness Day”, recognized by the United Nations and around the globe as a time to address the vulnerabilities, discrimination and abuses faced by seniors. Now, more than ever, in the time of COVID-19, it is imperative that we raise awareness as a society about the hardships faced by our growing elder population, and explore ways we can curb instances of elder abuse.

As we make our way through the fifth month of the coronavirus pandemic, one horrifying aspect of the virus has become devastatingly clear: COVID-19 has disproportionately and fatally impacted our community’s senior population.

The over-representation of older adults amongst coronavirus victims is staggering: it is estimated that long-term care residents account for over 80% of those who have died from COVID-19 in Canada.

The virus, by ravaging the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society, has revealed deep-rooted systemic deficiencies in long-term care regimes across the country.

In addition to exposing shortcomings in the way that care homes are run, the coronavirus has shown just how vulnerable and isolated older adults in this country are in general, something that estate and capacity litigators are sadly all too familiar with.

In the context of estate litigation, we see first-hand the vulnerability of older adults, which can often result in seniors being exposed to fraud, coercion, theft, undue influence and physical, emotional or financial abuse.

Instances of elder abuse are notoriously under-reported for a multitude of reasons (inability of the older adult to report, fear, shame, isolation, capacity issues, etc.), which is all the more reason why we, as a society, must make a concerted effort to shed light on this troubling issue and take steps to address elder abuse.

Aging, Vulnerability and Elder Abuse

As we age, we are not only confronted with increasing physical and mental health issues that can impair general function, mobility and cognition, but we also often find ourselves with fewer and fewer supportive friends and family members. Spouses, friends and relatives pass away or grow apart, children move out or become consumed with their own responsibilities, and oftentimes older adults are not only saddled with diminishing health, but find themselves increasingly isolated as they age.

It is estimated that approximately 25% of people aged 65 and over live alone, while a troubling 50% of women aged 75 and over live alone. Aging and loneliness, tragically, seem to go hand-in-hand.

This solitude of aging, coupled with deteriorating health, means that oftentimes the only plausible solution for seniors to live comfortably and safely, while meeting their care needs, is to move into a long-term care facility where the necessary care can be provided for them.

Another result of poor health combined with the propensity towards documented loneliness in the older adult community, which we see often in the world of estate litigation, is that older adults become increasingly susceptible to undue influence, coercion, fraud, and even financial and/or physical abuse by unscrupulous individuals who pick up on the fact that seniors are particularly vulnerable to be taken advantage of.

The elderly are regularly the most targeted and victimized group when it comes to fraud scams. And they can find themselves defenceless to schemes by those who seek to take advantage of them.

As estate litigators, every day we are confronted with cases where the vulnerability of older adults results in financial abuse, physical abuse, or seniors’ testamentary planning (their wills, Power of Attorneys, beneficiary designations, etc.) being changed as a result of coercion or undue influence exerted by opportunistic perpetrators.

One of the most tragic aspects of elder abuse is that these perpetrators are often those individuals who are closest to the senior, people who the senior relies on for care or financial support and who have the greatest ability to access and further isolate the older adult. Isolating an older adult from their already diminished network of supportive friends and families is a trademark tool used by perpetrators of elder abuse, fraud or undue influence.

What We Can Do

As we reflect and hopefully emerge as a society from the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to re-evaluating how our long-term care facilities are run, we should also be reflecting on the challenges and helplessness commonly faced by our older adult population and how these difficulties can be addressed, before it’s too late.

The Province of Ontario is already taking steps to correct the flawed long-term care home system in the Province, for starters, by mandating that all care facilities in the Province are equipped with air conditioning and by promising to add thousands of new beds to seniors’ homes around Ontario, to cut-down on wait times and overcrowding.

Simply raising public awareness of the prevalence of elder abuse and the vulnerability of seniors is one important step toward confronting these problems, although not enough on its own.

Another key step is good planning by adults, to ensure that they and their assets are secured and will be properly cared for as they age by trustworthy individuals. It is crucial that these testamentary plans (wills, powers of attorney, clearly expressed wishes) are made by adults when they are capable, so that when they are incapable or debilitated by age, there are protective systems in place to make sure older adults are cared for.

Appointing appropriate, loyal individuals as one’s fiduciaries or attorneys for property and personal care is a crucial step that all adults should take, so that when the challenges of aging do strike, trustworthy advocates are in place (as trustees, attorneys, etc.) who will ensure that seniors and their property are looked after (not abused) as they grow more vulnerable. These steps can also help to ensure that older adults are placed into appropriate care homes and their living situations reflect their prior expectations and wishes as they age.

Finally, remaining in close contact with the older adults in our lives – checking in regularly on their physical, mental and financial status – is crucially important to make sure that our older adult populations are properly cared for and not exposed to neglect or abuse. Obviously, these check-ins are made more difficult during a viral pandemic which requires social distancing, but it is also more important than ever.

We should also be aware of warning signs that a senior may be vulnerable and/or susceptible to being taken advantage of, including:

  1. Increasing social isolation;
  2. Increasing dependence or reliance on select individuals in fulfilling emotional, physical or financial needs;
  3. Recent family conflict or bereavement;
  4. The adult has made a new will or power of attorney document(s);
  5. The adult has made questionable or inexplicable financial decisions; and
  6. The adult has shown changes in their behaviour or changes in the people with whom they associate.

For more information relating to the vulnerability of our older adult population, and elder law in general, you can access our publication “Whaley Estate Litigation on Elder Law” at this link: http://welpartners.com/resources/WEL-on-elder-law.pdf  

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