Don't bank on being protected in your old age


SECOND OPINION: It’s time banks dealt with financial abuse of the elderly

OF THE MANY ROLES played by Mickey Rooney in a film career spanning 81 of his 90 years, his most important may have been his appearance at a US Senate hearing last month. The veteran actor gave eloquent testimony on the most hidden of crimes, financial abuse of older people. Eventually getting a restraining order against his stepson, his most telling point was how embarrassment and shame can stop older people from seeking help in these circumstances.

What he didn’t allude to was the unpreparedness of banks and the financial sector to face up to their responsibility to develop processes to prevent, detect and manage the financial abuse of older people, and to train staff in how to deal with this.

This is a major problem in Ireland, a point brought home to me forcibly last year when I was asked to give an expert opinion to an Irish bank. They were co-defendants in a court case brought by an older woman whose neighbours had taken her out of her nursing home and brought her to her bank where she signed over most of her savings to them.

Disturbed by the documents provided, I informed the bank’s legal team of the distinct possibility of elder abuse, recommending that the case be referred to the HSE elder abuse senior case worker, and possibly to the Garda. I also wrote to the chief executive of the bank, expressing the same advice, and urging that the bank review its policies, procedures and training regarding elder abuse.

To my astonishment, the bank proceeded to defend itself in the courts: unsurprisingly, it lost. The bank was held jointly liable on the grounds that the manager did not make sufficient enquiries as to the plaintiff’s capacity.

Feeling it inappropriate to intervene during the case, I wrote to the judge afterwards explaining my advice to the bank, and expressing my concern that this older woman had been forced to take on the stress and risk of a private case. Had it been referred to the HSE senior case worker in elder abuse, there was a high likelihood that she would have been supported in her case.

Why this sorry state of affairs? When I chaired the original government Working Group on Elder Abuse (1999-2002), we worked under the naive assumption that if senior bankers labelled themselves as professionals (okay, have your laugh, but you were fooled too!), they would keep up with the progress that banks in other countries had made in tackling the financial abuse of older people.

During subsequent implementation of the elder abuse strategy, it became clear that the legal, financial and banking sector didn’t want to know. Repeated requests for Department of Finance input to the implementation group were met with serial refusal.

The banks seemed nervous to even admit that such abuse could take place, and with responsibility for elder abuse policy formulation falling in the health sector may have let those in other areas feel they were off the hook. For example, the Department of Social Protection, whose pensions are a major focus of financial elder abuse, wrote to our research group saying they had no policy on elder abuse, referring us to the HSE!

Yet dealing with this issue is a no-brainer: relatively simple measures and training have been effective in banking systems in certain states in the US and Australasia. In addition, customers in maturing societies will be attracted to banks that have flexible age-attuned processes, where they can bank with comfort and security.

Irish banks have much to do to regain the trust and confidence of the Irish people. A good start would be to show corporate social responsibility and good business sense by developing strategies to prevent, detect and manage elder abuse. In this they would be aided by a change of government policy to view elder abuse as a whole government issue, and not just the province of health and social care.

Mickey Rooney famously said of his life: “Had I been brighter, the ladies been gentler, the Scotch weaker, the gods kinder, the dice hotter – it might have all ended up in a one-sentence story”. And what if the banks had been smarter and more responsible?

Dr Des O’Neill is a consultant in geriatric and stroke medicine in Dublin