Services Coordinator's blog: Brian Rapley

[names have been changed]

I remember Mary telling me this often when I met up with her.

At the time, Mary was in her late 70’s and had a stroke some years before, leaving her with reduced mobility and some speech difficulties. Although she sometimes struggled to find words to describe things, Mary could generally make herself understood if you took time with her. Surprisingly, she rarely got frustrated and would often just laugh at hearing some of the incorrect words she found herself speaking.

I was Mary’s advocate at the time, having had a referral from her son, Barry. He had some experience of working with adults with mental health issues and wanted to help his mother sort out some of her legal and financial affairs.

Barry’s sister was their mother’s Power of Attorney, with responsibility for her financial affairs.  Following a family dispute, Barry’s sister no longer visited or was looking after their mother’s financial affairs, and there was particular friction between Barry and his sister since he had returned to live with his mother to care for her.

When I visited Mary and spoke to her in private she would use very dismissive gestures and language when describing her daughter and tell me that she never visited. I tried to ask Mary who she wanted to look after her financial affairs and she would always indicate that it was her son she was close to and that she could trust him with her life.

I supported Mary to visit her solicitor, and with patient listening he was also satisfied that Mary wanted to revoke her daughter as Power of Attorney, to be replaced by Barry.  After some months, the necessary paperwork was produced and Mary willingly signed it after, the implications were explained to her again.

Mary and Barry were very grateful of my support, and I visited Mary a few more times to find out if there was anything else I could do to help her. She told me that although she enjoyed my visits and wanted me to carry on supporting her, unfortunately with there no longer a role for me, I stopped visiting and closed her case.

Several months later I received another referral for Mary from the local council. The Adult Support and Protection team had become involved as neighbours had become concerned about Mary, feeling that she was not looking after herself any more and there was no sign of her son.

When Mary’s financial affairs were investigated, it transpired that Barry had stolen Mary’s life savings of around £25,000 and he had not been seen for some time. It was suspected that he had fled the country.   

This despicable case highlights that, although appointing a Power of Attorney can be an invaluable tool for helping relatives or friends with their finances should they lose the ability to do so themselves, the person appointed must be chosen with care. There will always be a balance between respecting the rights of the individual to make their own choices, while providing some degree of state intervention to protect vulnerable adults from the risk of abuse.  So how do we achieve both? Perhaps there’s a need for a more robust means of assessing the capacity of vulnerable adults, or should those wishing to become Power of Attorneys be assessed for their suitability for this role?  This is a complex area for which there are no easy answers, but ultimately this is a societal problem. While the vast majority of people using these powers to support their loved ones do so with good intentions, there are a small minority who choose to abuse this position of trust. For some, the motive is simple greed, with the older person’s vulnerability making them an easy target. While for others, the fact that the person they are ‘supporting’ is often a parent makes them genuinely believe they are entitled to help themselves to their money.  Many realise that their parent’s love for them, or fear of loneliness if they speak up, often prevents them from reporting what is happening. This attitude towards older people must stop. We need to create a culture of dignity, support and trust for all older people, not fear and exploitation.

Action on Elder Abuse Scotland is a national charity working to protect older people from harm, abuse or neglect. Our confidential Scottish Helpline is available 9am – 5pm, Monday to Friday, and is available to anyone concerned about elder abuse or worried about an older person. Freephone: 080 8808 8141.