Gordon Powers

Although you'd think it was one designated event we could do without, today is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

When we think of older people at risk, all the usual things come to mind, but mistreatment comes in many forms — not the least of which are financial.

Each year thousands of people call the Public Guardian and Trustee to find out what they can do to help a friend or relative who isn't able to manage finances or make legal decisions on their own.

Unfortunately, by then, it's often too late.

Unscrupulous caregivers may have already begun making decisions for the older person without his or her consent. Or relatives may be pressuring seniors into things they don't really want to do — like loaning them money, putting assets in joint names or completely transferring property to an adult child.

"Many older people won't speak up because they feel so ashamed their family member is treating them so shabbily," says Toronto estate lawyer Les Kotzer, the author, along with Barry Fish, of Where There's an Inheritance: Stories from Inside the World of Two Will Lawyers. "Sometimes they're scared that if they say something, things will get even worse.''

He describes the sad tale of one older woman who's so intimidated by her daughter that she has written two wills: The first document is a sham designed to appease the daughter, who expects to inherit everything. But the actual, and unseen, will tells a different story, largely disinheriting the bullying offspring.

Kotzer says that in recent years he's seen an increase in older people feeling pressured over estate issues, a trend that he attributes partly to demographics — over the next decade Canadians will experience the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in the country's history — but mostly to greed.

He categorizes impatient and overextended baby boomers looking to cash in on inheritances prematurely as "waiters" and he sees more of them than he would care to.

"I get people coming in here asking: 'What can I do to get at some of my inheritance now? Can I take a look at my father's will?' — even though he's still alive," Kotzer says. "We're just seeing a lot more manipulative situations."

Some of which, unfortunately, seniors can inadvertently bring on themselves.

The elderly are often too hasty at signing over control of their affairs to a relative or friend, says Kotzer, who compares such a decision to getting married — if you're unsure about whether you're choosing the right person, it's probably better to hold off a bit.

That person you appoint as your spokesperson and decision-maker is called your "attorney," explains Calgary estate lawyer Lynne Butler, author of Protect Your Elderly Parents: Become Your Parents' Guardian or Trustee.