Widely experienced lawyer for new role at SRV

SRV’s Principal Lawyer Rebecca Edwards has been appointed to the new role of Manager and Principal Lawyer at Seniors Rights Victoria.

‘I want to continue to protect the rights of older people experiencing abuse, and SRV’s outstanding work with our partners and stakeholders,’ says Rebecca.

Having worked at SRV since 2017, Rebecca is widely experienced in legal, social justice and government matters. Prior to this she spent 10 years as a lecturer and tutor in law and social justice at La Trobe University.

Rebecca’s career in private practice began in rural and regional Victoria. She has also worked for Victoria Legal Aid and spent two years in Broome, working on native title cases for the Kimberley Land Council.

A unique aspect of Rebecca’s career was time spent as a volunteer legal analyst at the United Nations Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda based in Arusha, Tanzania.

Her community engagement includes being Deputy Chair of a local community Health Centre Board and three years as a government-appointed director of the Victorian Fisheries Authority.

In her spare time, Rebecca runs a small farm with her husband and two sons growing ethically-raised, pastured pork and lamb in Central Victoria. She is also completing her PhD!

Rebecca brings a passion for social justice and an obvious capacity for hard work to SRV. She has a number of priorities for her new role in 2021 starting with ensuring SRV meets all its obligations as a community legal centre.

‘In the Manager role, I want to fully implement the changes from the recent restructure while working to build a united and focused SRV team,’Rebecca says.

‘SRV work is often difficult as clients seeking our support can be facing very complex issues.. So in-house our priorities will be to ensure staff wellbeing and manageable workloads withappropriate support.

‘Looking at the wider picture, I want to grow our integrated service model, which is the foundation of our role as a specialist community legal centre, and supports our ongoing work in community education and policy.

Rebecca also has plans to ensure SRV continues to play a major role in addressing elder abuse in Victoria.‘ I would like to see SRV continue to improve its data collection processes and procedures so we can continue to provide an evidence base for the work we do.’

Farewell to Jenny Blakey

Jenny Blakey, taken at Seniors Rights Victoria's 10th Anniversary celebrationsLong-serving Manager of Seniors Rights Victoria Jenny Blakey was farewelled by senior government representatives, work colleagues and industry associates at functions in December and January.  

For nearly 13 years, Seniors Rights Victoria has taken the lead in addressing elder abuse as part of a broad program to protect the rights of older Victorians. Following a turbulent stage in the development of Seniors Rights VictoriaJenny took over as manager and provided a steady hand which contributed to the growth of Seniors Rights Victoria for over a decade, positioning it as a leader in elder abuse prevention, policy and response.  

At a farewell lunch for Jenny, COTA Victoria CEO Tina Hogarth-Clarke noted that the Seniors Rights Victoria integrated advocacy and lawyer model played a key role in the delivery of the Victorian Government’s elder abuse prevention and response initiatives, and also led in research into the cause of elder abuse and pathways to reducing abuse. Jenny was a key part of the team that helped build that leadership. 

In addition to compassionately managing the staff at SRV, who noted her patience, mentoring and leadership, Jenny played a key sector leadership role in raising the topic of elder abuse in a variety of forums. This included the state-wide elder abuse advisory group and the Royal Commission into Family Violence.  

By building relationships with industry groups, government, Victoria Police and the family violence sector, and working to establish the national Body Elder Abuse Action Australia (EAAA), Jenny’s work has had a major impact on the lives of older Victorians and Australians. 

Industry colleagues thanked her for her persistence in campaigning for the rights of older people and for creating forums, such as the elder abuse roundtable, in which practice perspectives can be shared. 

Jenny’s COTA Victoria work colleagues wish her well on the next stage of her life journey. 

Close up of an older woman's hands using a mobile phone.

Understanding the impact of COVID on older Victorians

Victoria had Australia’s longest COVID-19 lockdown last year and maintaining contact with older people was a priority for COTA Victoria and Seniors Rights Victoria during this time.

To better understand how the pandemic and lockdown may have affected elder abuse, Seniors Rights Victoria compared the calls its helpline received in 2020, with those received the year before.

In 2020, there were significant increases in calls about psychological abuse (748, up 32%); physical abuse (184, up 40%); and social abuse (170, up 21%). This correlates with data collected by the Crime Statistics Agency which showed an increase in elder abuse incidents attended by Victoria Police and Ambulance Victoria.

There were fewer calls about financial abuse (703, down 32%) and guardianship and administration matters (263, down 49%) than the previous year. It was notable that while there were fewer calls during the lockdown periods, there were sharp increases when restrictions were lifted. SRV staff suspect this was because people were unable to seek help during the lockdowns if they lived with the perpetrator, and also that people were unwilling to address financial abuse concerns when the perpetrator (often a family member) may have been experiencing economic hardship from the pandemic.

The issues Seniors Rights Victoria assists with are usually related to long-term elder abuse and family conflict. It is expected that the impact of the pandemic on this type of elder abuse may not be seen for some time.

Prior to 2020, it was reported by older people that 36% of perpetrators of elder abuse had a drug, alcohol or gambling issue; 39% mental issues; and 27% financial difficulties. Research also showed 36% of people experiencing elder abuse lived with the perpetrator.

If there is an increase in any of the above factors due to the pandemic (job loss, increased mental health issues, increased alcohol consumption, financial stress, housing stress) there may be an associated increase in elder abuse.

Some of the specific issues raised by callers to Seniors Rights Victoria throughout the pandemic were about potential problems. These included family members who had returned to live with aged parents (some having returned from overseas) because they had no job or income, and would not contribute to household income.

For some callers, the challenges of supporting family members with mental health issues were exacerbated by anxiety about the pandemic and the isolation of lockdowns. There were also calls about adult children returning to older parent homes, using drugs and being abusive.

A survey last year by the Australian Institute of Family Studies revealed the pandemic was encouraging jobless adult children to move back in with parents, increasing concerns about the risk of elder abuse. The Life During COVID-19 survey spoke to more than 7000 people from around Australia. Many of the under 30s surveyed said they had moved back with their parents. Almost a quarter of those aged 50 to 59 the Institute spoke to said their children had moved back in.

COTA Victoria's survey 'Coronavirus - checking in on the older people's experience.

COTA Victoria’s survey of older Victorian’s COVID experiences

Both SRV and COTA Victoria quickly recognised that social isolation and fear about the COVID-19 pandemic would be serious issues for older people. However, it was also acknowledged that more research would need to be done to understand the impact of COVID-19 on older people and elder abuse.

COTA Victoria also conducted an online and telephone survey of older people aged mostly between 65 and 84. The primary aim of the survey was to ensure the voices of older people were included in public discussions about how to plan, manage and recover from natural disasters and community emergencies.

COTA worked with the City of Whittlesea to analyse the results. The feedback from 1,149 participants has assisted the Victorian Government and local councils with recovery work and emergency planning.

Those surveyed said the top five pandemic challenges were:

  • Not being able to go to weekly activities such as social groups, churches and sport (63%)
  • Not being with family (61%)
  • Social isolation (50%)
  • Missing important life events such as weddings, birthdays and funerals (46%)
  • Not being able to get out and be active (39%).

Respondents’ anonymous comments were telling indicators of how older people were feeling during this time. Many revealed they were unsure, wary, wanting of information, or simply waiting for inspiration and a sense of safety.

Participants also said they were concerned about missing family; their financial future; isolation and boredom; catching the virus; concern for others not following rules; health in general and staying safe.

As people considered the recovery phase of the pandemic, the overall responses were positive and demonstrated their resilience.

Many shared suggestions about managing life in a pandemic including the need to stay connected (41%); not panic (18%); be active and continue to exercise (14%) and continue regular medical checks (12%).

This survey demonstrated that even if an older person is experiencing many challenges, their attitude and advice is relevant to the experience and recovery of the broader community.

A granny flat at dusk.

Downsizing decisions need care

Lower interest rates and increased demand are pushing up the cost of housing in Victoria. In addition, the financial pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that some families are suffering financial hardship and are considering ways in which to consolidate their financial positions 

At times like these, older people might think about downsizing or living with their family. That might mean living in a house owned by family, or family moving into a house owned by an older person. Another option is to build a self-contained unit on land that includes the family house. 

For example, an older person might sell an existing property and then pay for the construction of a ‘granny flat’ on a property belonging to their adult child. The arrangement may include a promise by the adult child to provide on-going residence and care to the older person in return for the increase in value to their property by the additional dwelling. These arrangements are called “assets for care” and can benefit both parties. The benefits for the older person can include the chance to be close to grandchildren, care and support when required, and avoiding or delaying having to enter aged care. The adult child can also benefit both financially and from the practical assistance the older person can provide to the family. 

While these can be very satisfactory arrangements for all generations in the family, it is important to consider various contingencies and have a plan to resolve disputes. Issues to consider include the break-down of the adult child’s relationship and subsequent upheaval; the adult child becoming unemployed; increase in the care needs of the older person; or either party wanting to terminate the arrangement. 

Centrelink have specific rules for these types of arrangements. Their advice should be sought before transferring property or assets for careIn certain circumstances, Centrelink recognises these payments and provides an exemption from its gifting provisions (which prevent an older person gifting more than specified amounts without impacting on their Centrelink benefits). 

Previously, an interest created in this way was subject to Capital Gains Tax (CGT) if the funds were applied to the building of a separately occupiable dwelling, for which rent was charged. However, in the last federal budget, the Treasurer announced that from June 2021, CGT will not apply to the creation, variation or termination of a formal written granny flat arrangement providing accommodation for older Australians or people with disabilities.  

Another complication is the fact that local councils have different permit requirements that need to be considered when building a flat or self-contained unit on the property of a family member. The financial implications of this type of investment can differ substantially depending on the legality of the structure and the permit type requiredIf the council only allows the construction of a “dependent person’s unit” then this unit cannot be used for other purposes such as rental accommodation. More importantly, the unit’s resale value or the value it adds to the property may be less than the cost of its construction. If the relationship with family sours or the older person’s care needs significantly increase, then it may be difficult to recover the construction costs. An older person may be left without funds for alternate accommodation if family relationships are strained. 

Granny flat agreements are a complex area, and the legal position can vary greatly depending on the circumstances of each agreement. Ideally, all such arrangements should involve a formal written agreement that sets out each party’s obligations and entitlements and is legally enforceable. Independent legal advice can be critical to safeguard the interests of the parties, especially those of the older person, who can often render themselves vulnerable by placing their future welfare in the hands of others. 

Case study 1: Investing in a self-contained unit

Case Study 2: Case Study 2: Investing in family property

An older woman stands at a window.

Case Study 1: Investing in a self-contained unit

Jan 

After the death of her husband five years ago, Jan felt isolated and lonely living alone at some distance from her family. Janher daughter Marie and her son-in-law Paul discussed Jan moving closer to them and being available for her grandchildren after schoolgiven that Marie and Paul struggled to get home from work until later in the evening. Jan also had some health issues and she wanted to be living somewhere she could get support if required. 

Jan sold her home and spent $120,000 building a self-contained unit on the property owned by Marie and Paul. Marie and Paul also insisted that Jan give them $85,000 in return for them providing her with a home for life and care as required. Marie explained to Jan that by providing the $85,000 to them Jan would be complying with Centrelink rules and would not lose her pension 

Jan was concerned about the arrangement and the fact it was not confirmed in writing. However, she trusted her daughter and did not want to offend her family. 

At first the arrangement went well. Jan enjoyed being close to her grandchildren and having the security of Marie and Paul close by if she needed them.  

However, the relationship between Marie and Jan soured and Marie told Jan she must leave the property. Jan has no savings left and is reliant on the age pension as her only form of income. Jan has tried to sell the unit but the only offer has been $10,000 because the cost to remove the unit is high. Marie and Paul are refusing to give Jan any money because they say Jan’s unit does not add any value to their property. 

Jan sought advice from Seniors Rights Victoria. SRV’s advocates have been able to provide Jan with general support, links to housing services to find alternative accommodation suitable for a person of her age, and counselling to address the trauma Jan is feeling over the breakdown of the relationship with her only daughter. SRV’s lawyers have arranged for valuations of the property to be undertaken and have been able to negotiate with Marie and Paul for a payment to be made to Jan which, while not sufficient to buy another property, will enable her to maintain her independence into the future. 

Case Study 2: Investing in family property

Diane 

Diane sold her home. She then contributed $250,000 towards the purchase of a large property shared with her daughter Nicole and son-in-law DavidDiane’s contribution was one quarter of the purchase price. 

Diane had a wing of the house for herself which included a bedroom, lounge and bathroom, but she shared the kitchen with the rest of the family. Diane’s financial interest was not listed on the property title because Nicole had said that she would not be able to get a mortgage on the property if Diane was on title.  

Diane enjoyed being close to her grandchildren and daughter. However, after three years Nicole’s relationship with David broke down and the property became the subject of a family law property settlement. David was claiming half the value of the property and did not recognise any interest Diana had in the property. 

Diane sought assistance from Seniors Rights VictoriaWe arranged for Diane to be joined to the Family Court proceedings so that her equitable interest in the property was recognised and, when the property was ultimately sold, she received one quarter of the sale proceeds. This enabled her to buy a unit in a retirement village close to where her daughter then settled. 

 

Legal documents titles Financial Elder Abuse.

Avoiding elder financial abuse

The Law Council of Australia has released a Best Practice Guide for Legal Practitioners in relation to Elder Financial Abuse 

The Guide assists legal practitioners in identifying and addressing potential elder financial abuse issues when preparing and executing wills and other advance planning documents. 

Law Council President Ms Pauline Wright, says it has never been more important for Australia and the legal profession to do more to ensure that the human rights of older persons are strongly protected. 

Today, one in every six Australians (15.9%) are aged 65 and over, and these figures are set to increase,’ Ms Wright says. 

Legal practitioners are in a key position to recognise and prevent the abuse of older persons, including financial abuse. 

The Guide has been developed by the Law Council’s specialist National Elder Law and Succession Law Committee in consultation with constituent bodies. 

Download a copy of Best practice guide for legal practitioners in relation to elder financial abuse (PDF).

Graphic advertising the Warm Safe Home Virtual Forum

You are invited to the Warm Safe Home Virtual Forum

Featuring special guests the Commissioner for Senior Victorians, Gerard Mansour, and Gary Ferguson from Seniors Rights Victoria.

Join us to learn about how to protect your rights as an older person living in the community and explore the key ingredients needed to create a warm safe home.

We will also hear from a panel of local experts who can provide information on supports available for older people in our community.

This event is hosted by the Barwon Elder Abuse Primary Prevention Network in partnership with Bellarine Community Health.

This event is held as part of the Barwon Warm Safe Home Community Art Project and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence.

When

25 November 2020

2.30pm to 4pm

Book through Eventbrite

You may book your ticket online here. You will then receive a Zoom link.

More information

For more information contact education@barwoncls.org.au or Karen.Crockford@bch.org.au or call Barwon Community Legal Service on 1300 430 599.

Download the flier

Download the event flier here.

In memory of Susan Ryan

As many of you will know from weekend media, Susan Ryan, the former Senator and Federal Age Discrimination Commissioner, died on the weekend at the age of 77.

Susan was a pioneer in many issues for ending discrimination of women and more recently championing the rights of older people.

Earlier this year, we invited Susan Ryan to be the keynote speaker at the Warm Safe Home Forum in Warrnambool, as part of 2020 World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Although “retired” Susan was still active in the ageism space and her response was immediate: “it is such a fundamental matter re older people’s rights-basically, no secure home, no protection of rights.”

While Susan couldn’t attend in-person, her keynote speech to the Forum through the virtual platform was inspirational and well-informed. We’ll be forever grateful that she lent her name to the project.

Susan Ryan was forthright in articulating these to the wider community. Australia will miss the leadership that Susan Ryan demonstrated and continued to show through her senior years.

In memory of Susan Ryan.

By Gary Ferguson | Education Co-ordinator | Seniors Rights Victoria at COTA (VIC)