Family members can take advantage of vulnerable seniors when they are most in need of care, an expert has warned.
Keeona Belboda, the manager of the Government’s Ageing and Disability Services, said there had been a “horrifying” rise in complaints about elderly people who signed over rights to relatives when they were sick.
Ms Belboda added that relatives were among those who exploited situations where elderly people were in poor health.
She said: “What we are seeing a real increase on is the number of persons that have been obtaining power of attorney when the senior is not in their best medical state.
“For example, if a senior has just had a stroke or something, persons are going to the hospital with the relevant power of attorney documents.”
She continued: “If they’re being hospitalised or generally not feeling well, they’re generally not in their right frame of mind because they’re dealing with whatever illness they’re experiencing. There will be family members, friends, persons that know the senior personally, especially if they are aware the senior has funds, who will utilise that moment to gain power of attorney over them.
“They will get them to sign and they don’t understand what they’re signing.”
A power of attorney agreement is designed to allow someone else to act in transactions on behalf of an individual.
Ms Belboda said nurses had stepped in when they “pick up on something untoward” but other cases had gone unnoticed.
She added: “It’s really horrifying.”
The ageing and disabilities service is thought to have received about 25 complaints about rights over or access to property, which can also involve signing paperwork.
Ms Belboda said that a senior might be moved into a pool house as a relative took over the main home.
She added that bank transactions could also be an opportunity for exploitation.
Ms Belboda said: “We have family members who will take their loved ones to the bank and have them withdraw, sometimes, significant amounts of funds.
“The banks have been a bit more keen to notice, so they have been notifying us.
“The only issue is that when we get notified, it’s when significant sums of money have already been withdrawn from accounts. Some are in their thousands, tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands.”
She added: “In the past 12 months there has been an increase but the difficulty that we have is if there is a senior parent and they have their son or daughter on their account with them, like a joint bank account, there is nothing that we can do because they’re considered to have access to those funds as well.”
Ms Belboda said: “We are trying to utilise this as a public education opportunity in terms of what seniors can do to protect themselves, ensuring that persons wait until they do their will and put their wishes on paper.
She added that elderly people should also consider carefully who to entrust with their affairs.
Ms Belboda said: “When you have the capacity to think for yourself, choose that person. I also say not so much a family member because they don’t always do what’s in your best interests, but a law firm — someone that doesn’t have a vested interest — to be your power of attorney, to make decisions for you.”
She also asked the public to look out for older relatives and neighbours and to watch for signs that they are not coping.
These include an unkempt appearance, inappropriate or dirty clothing, infrequent bathing, homes in disrepair, hoarding items and missing medical appointments.
Ms Belboda said: “They might be losing weight, may not go on their usual routine — that’s when there may be something going on.
“That would be the time to probe and see if they can get additional information or if they’re just not sure, to contact our offices.”
Ms Belboda was speaking after senior magistrate Juan Wolffe warned of an apparent increase in the number of older debtors appearing in court.
Mr Wolffe said he had noticed a pattern of seniors unable to make ends meet as pensions failed to cover healthcare and living costs.
He told The Royal Gazette he feared Bermuda might have “a population of elderly people who can’t afford their bills” and also warned that family members may have exploited older relatives for their own financial gain.