Vulnerable elderly people have been cheated of their money and abused by members of their own family during the pandemic, the HSE has revealed.
The number of people over-65 referred to the HSE’s national safeguarding office for psychological and financial abuse rose last year with half the perpetrators coming from their own family.
Concerned whistleblowers, including members of the public and health staff, alerted inspectors to 2,560 cases of possible psychological or financial abuse of people over 65 last year compared to 1,880 in 2020.
Commenting on the figures, Patricia Rickard Clarke, chair of Safeguarding Ireland, said financial abuse can be perpetrated by family members who collect an older person’s state pension and keep the money for themselves.
“Also, an older person may be forced to sign over their house before they die or family members take control of assets.”
She said: “It is not always the case that the older person lacks capacity, although those who lack capacity are at greater risk.”
She said there can be a reluctance by gardaí to intervene, viewing it as a family matter.
The HSE’s safeguarding office said for people over 65 almost half the concerns reported involved “immediate family members”.
The office is open to investigate allegations of all forms of abuse including physical abuse against adults.
It received 11,640 reports regarding adults of all ages last year, a 10pc rise on 2020.
The total number of reports for the over-65s was 3,671 and 1,320 were over 80.
It acknowledges that despite the increase in recent years the figures do not capture the full extent of hidden abuse.
For adults under 65 the most significant alleged abuse is psychological – affecting 46pc – followed by physical abuse, accounting for 34pc of reports.
It said for people aged 65 to 79 the most significant category is psychological abuse, followed by physical and financial abuse.
For the over-80s psychological abuse is the main concern followed by physical and financial abuse.
Last year, seven in 10 reports to the HSE’s safeguarding watchdog led to “reasonable grounds for concern”.
Tim Hanly, general manager of the HSE safeguarding office, said there is a need for safeguarding legislation to support the work and inter-agency collaboration to “reach the best conclusions for adults at risk of abuse”.
Ms Rickard Clarke added: “The strong association identified between psychological and financial abuse among those over 80 stems from an all too common attitude which does not respect older people’s rights, independence and autonomy.
“What starts as psychological abuse often becomes financial abuse. An attitude prevails among some people that it is OK to step in and gradually assume authority over an older or frail person’s finances.
“However, this is not true and needs to be called out. The role of families, loved ones and carers is to respect older people to retain control of their own finances, and to facilitate support for independent decision-making if needed.
“No other person, be they a family member, or carer, has entitlement to use or influence an older person’s money unless this authority is legally assigned to them through an active enduring power of attorney.
“The level of under-reporting of abuse in Ireland is indicated by RED C research, commissioned by Safeguarding Ireland in 2020, which found that 12pc of all adults reported having experienced adult abuse in the previous six months, and one third of adults reported ever having experienced abuse.”
She said there is a need for an independent National Safeguarding Authority.
She welcomed HSE support for an all-sector approach overseen by an independent safeguarding authority and underpinned by new laws.