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‘Love becomes the vulnerability’: Elder abuse and gambling harm

A woman with glasses and short hair smiles while standing outside a fence. She is wearing a colorful floral-patterned top.

EACH Financial Counsellor Linda Wright

Long before Linda Wright became a senior practitioner in the financial counselling team at EACH Yarra Junction, she was a bank teller, then a bank manager, in the days when loans were agreed by a handshake.

She witnessed whispered tensions between parents and adult children who came to her counter and gained insights into the financial pressure exerted in families.

Does that elderly parent really know what they’re signing? Are they freely choosing that financial arrangement or being coerced?

The prevalence of elder abuse

‘Elder abuse has always been there,’ says Linda, ‘and it’s common when gambling is involved.

‘We can only measure its prevalence in the demand for our financial counselling services, but we simply don’t know how widespread it is in the community.

‘… clients feel safe because … you’re only talking about money, not emotions.’
- Linda Wright

‘When it comes to gambling harm, in some ways financial issues are the easiest issues to settle. A lot of clients feel safe with a financial counsellor because you’re only talking about money, not emotions.’

Older clients may self-present to EACH or come through mental health services or family violence agencies, with the majority arriving via Orange Door. Their initial presentation is often related to a defining moment: they can no longer pay their debts; they can’t afford to live.

The financial counselling team works closely with clients alongside the therapeutic counselling team.

Older Australians left vulnerable

‘One client on the aged pension was building up credit card debt from gambling to escape violence from her son. He purchased her house and added a granny flat for her, then sold the house and relocated her into a rental she had no capacity to service.’

Linda was able to get a debt waiver, however a decline from the client to refer her to a legal service left her with ongoing vulnerabilities and financial hardship.

Linda recalls another client who wouldn’t allow her to act on his behalf.

‘His son was gambling and causing him huge financial stress but, because he raised him, he felt he simply had to live with the consequences.

‘Another client was in hospital and her daughter redirected my client’s pension into her own account.’

Unfortunately this is a common theme: older clients being technologically cut off from their own money by giving away log-ins that grant access to accounts or Centrelink entitlements. And with the move to online banking, money isn’t tangible anymore; its worth is abstract.

… with the move to online banking, money isn’t tangible anymore; its worth is abstract.

Linda explains that her clients are vulnerable because they’re aging but also because they want to support their kids.

‘Love becomes the vulnerability,’ she says. ‘Love for their child is above all and parents are always there, shelling out and fearing the loss of the relationship.’

The loss of housing security

Another complex case of money, housing security and love intertwined involves a client in her 40s who has put about $2 million through the TAB over seven years. Her mother – who knows about the gambling – sold the family home and put the money in a joint account with her daughter. An informal arrangement between the two to build a bungalow for the mother fell apart due to the gambling arrears.

‘It’s elder abuse within a loving relationship.’
- Linda Wright

While the daughter coerced her husband and daughters – who don’t know about the gambling – to take out online loans to complete the build, the mother set up a payment plan through her pension with the builder for the remaining balance.

‘It’s fraught,’ says Linda. ‘It’s elder abuse within a loving relationship.’

Linda escalated the case through the bank on the grounds of duty of care. While they agreed to waive a small loan in the client’s name, they are not obligated to monitor transactions including, in this case, up to 50 TAB transactions a day over years.

With parent/child dynamics notoriously intractable, it’s not surprising that Linda has some very long-term clients.

‘One client on a disability support pension has been with me on and off for 10 years,’ she says. ‘Her daughter has drug, alcohol and gambling issues and there is financial, emotional and psychological abuse. They’ve had a joint mortgage, there are grandchildren in the home and Child Protection has been involved for many years.

‘The safety and wellbeing of our clients comes first.’
- Linda Wright

‘The daughter would stop paying the mortgage over and over and my client would fix the arrears.

‘My client could have got a lawyer, gone to VCAT [Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal] and forced a sale, but it would have been her driving that against her daughter. She’s at peace now that she can’t help her daughter anymore and has decided to surrender the house to the bank so it’s repossessed. Defaults are issued and it shifts the blame away from the mum.’

With safety paramount and safe and secure housing at stake, the best-case scenario is the client regaining her financial independence and some equity from the home.

‘As financial counsellors, we often talk about clashing values,’ continues Linda. ‘We’re all about protecting assets, but the safety and wellbeing of our clients comes first.

‘In this case, I see this client surrendering the house as empowering her.’