Figures from Action on Elder Abuse found almost £80m of cash and property was stolen from elderly people last year – much of it by relatives - Rachel Smith reports.
AS Vera Banks sat in the comfortable residential home she had chosen to spend her later years, her future was pulled out from under her.
There is clear medical evidence that severely traumatic experiences have an effect on the immune system of an elderly person.
The former shop worker had saved all her life to provide a nest egg for herself and her family to ensure they would always be financially secure.
But all that was taken away when she entrusted her nephew Ian Stanworth with her £370,000 finances.
Stanworth left his 86-year-old aunt penniless after stealing first her savings, then the proceeds from the sale of her home - feeding them into slot machines in Blackpool’s arcades.
After a lifetime of shrewd money management, Mrs Banks faced a harsh new truth - she could no longer afford to pay for her own funeral. She told officers from Lancashire Constabulary: “I can’t afford to live; I can’t afford to die.”
Sadly Mrs Banks is not alone.
Recent figures from the charity Action on Elder Abuse (AEA) reveal a sharp rise in the number of reports of pensioners being financially abused by family members.
In the year ending March 2013 their helpline received 5,722 calls in connection with all types of abuse of elderly people - including financial, verbal, neglect and physical abuse.
By March 2015 that figure rose to 21,267.
The 7,529 of those calls - almost a third - relating to financial abuse reveal a worrying trend.
Pensioners are being targeted by the very people they entrust to protect and care for them.
Gary Fitzgerald, AEA’s chief executive, says: “It is far more common than people imagine. One of the most painful messages we have to deliver is that the majority of theft and fraud of elderly people is perpetrated by members of their own family - their son’s daughters, nieces and nephews.
“It is easier for them to convince mum or dad that handing over financial control is the safest thing to do.”
It is a story all too familiar in Lancashire.
Last year Amy Rebecca Lindsay, 28, from Longridge, received a community order after she stole £20,000 from her aunt Peggy Camps, a retired postmistress.
Her lawyer, Marc Stephenson, described the offence as being “as easy as walking into a shop and buying a packet of crisps” for mum-of-two Lindsay.
But like many other pensioners affected by these offences, the abuse of trust and money took its toll on Mrs Camps’ health and in the months that followed she lost weight and was under the care of her doctor for anxiety.
Action on Elder Abuse is now campaigning for a change in the law to make abuse of elderly victims an aggravated criminal offence.
Such a change would separate offences against elderly victims from more general criminal offering them similar protection in law as children.
This would lead to tougher sentences for perpetrators such as Amy Lindsay - who paid back just £500 of the £20,000 she had stolen.
Mr Fitzgerald says: “There is clear medical evidence that severely traumatic experiences have an effect on the immune system of an elderly person.
“These are vulnerable victims, many with existing health problems and there is a real increased risk of people dying as a result.
“Not only have they lost their money but they struggle to cope with what that person has done to them.”
Catherine Denwood, 76, from Lancaster, took her niece Helena Burrows in when she needed a place to live.
But after Mrs Denwood was admitted to hospital suffering a minor stroke, Burrows became more demanding and controlling.
In the months that followed Burrows, 24, stole £13,000 from her aunt’s accounts splashing out on clothes, makeup and a lifestyle far beyond her means.
When the theft was uncovered Mrs Denwood feared she may lose her home after learning her niece had taken out payday loans in her name which she could not afford to pay.
In April 2014 Burrows was sentenced to eight months in prison but speaking after the sentence hearing at Preston Crown Court, Mrs Denwood said: “It was frightening. Me and my husband worked all our lives for that. After he died I took her in thinking she was going to look after me.”
Of the calls to AEA’s helpline last year, 12,462 of the victims were women and 5,805 were men. Some 12,760 of the victims were over 80 years old and 3,190 were over 90.
And 4,041 had dementia.
But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg as many older people do not report family members when they steal or cheat money from them - and of those who are reported, even fewer face criminal charges.
Mr Fitzgerald says: “To a large degree, elder abuse is very similar to domestic violence. “People do not want to admit they are a victim because they feel ashamed or embarrassed.
“They don’t want to admit their own sons or daughters would do this to them and they don’t want to see their child go to prison.
“But we need to be talking in terms of theft and fraud. These are vulnerable victims.
“We hear the perpetrators say ‘it is my inheritance. I’m just taking it early’, or they say ‘if I didn’t spend it, she would’.
“They don’t see it as theft, they see it is a right and we have got to do something about it.”
Action on Elder Abuse has a dedicated helpline for anyone concerned they, or an elderly person is suffering any form of abuse or neglect.
Freephone 080 8808 8141.