Social workers are seeing more senior citizens who have been cheated or financially abused by their children.
The children may have tricked or talked the parents into selling their home, often with the promise that the parents can live with the children in the children's home. But after taking the sale proceeds, they treat the parents shabbily, some even throwing the parents out.
There are also cases where children hold a parent's ATM card or manage their finances, as the parent may be too frail to go to the bank or is unfamiliar with the banking system. But the parent's life savings get wiped out as the children help themselves to the money.
Also common are situations of adult sons demanding money regularly from elderly parents and turning violent if they do not comply.
TRANS Safe Centre, a charity specialising in helping abused elderly people, dealt with 11 seniors who suffered some form of financial abuse last year. In 2008, it had only two such cases, its senior social worker Mrs Chua Yixin told The Sunday Times.
HIDING THE SHAME
The elderly may not even see this as abuse, but as their bad karma to have an unfilial child. They think it's shameful to tell others and they don't know what can be done about it
MRS CHUA YIXIN, senior social worker at TRANS Safe Centre, on abused seniors choosing to keep mum about being exploited by their children
Care Corner Project StART, another of the three agencies that specialise in helping those affected by family violence, estimates that it had about 20 such new cases last year, a "considerable" rise over the last few years, its team leader Kristine Lam said.
Pave, another family violence specialist centre, does not track the number of seniors who have been financially abused, but said the issue is definitely of concern. This is because social workers say that the cases reported are but the tip of the iceberg. Parents not only fear they will get the children in trouble if they go to the police, but also worry that the children will cut off ties if they go public.
And even when they seek assistance, it is often for financial aid or to find a place to stay for themselves or the abusive child. When doing so, they keep mum about how they have been exploited.
Said Mrs Chua: "The elderly may not even see this as abuse, but as their bad karma to have an unfilial child. They think it's shameful to tell others and they don't know what can be done about it."
Take for example the case cited by Project StART's Ms Lam of a widow in her 80s whose only child got her to sell her house worth $4 million. The son, a businessman in his 40s, asked his mother to sign a document, purportedly to rent out her house and give him the rental income to help him cope with business woes.
As it turned out, the document was for the sale of the house. He later promised to buy her a small flat.
But that did not happen, and she found herself living with his family of five in his two-room flat. The woman also said her daughter- in-law treated her badly.
But she put up with it, as her son told her he would cut off ties and not attend her funeral if she went against his wishes, Ms Lam said.
Social workers say the financial abuse cuts across all income groups.
Mrs Chua gives the example of a widow in her 80s who receives $450 a month from the Government's Public Assistance (PA) scheme for the destitute.
She is bedridden and lives with the youngest of her six children, a son in his 50s. The jobless man used his mother's PA money for himself, leaving her malnourished, among other problems. He even took his mother out to the streets to beg, his siblings told Mrs Chua.
But when they questioned their brother or tried to visit the old woman, he threatened to kill himself and found ways to stop them from visiting her. With the social workers' help, however, the other children eventually managed to have her placed in a nursing home.
Mrs Chua said many such abuse cases come to light only when the other children smell a rat.
For instance, when the parents are not properly looked after, or when the child who is suspected of cheating the parent prevents siblings from having any contact with the parent.
One man even went so far as to take his mother to a lawyer's office to sign a statutory declaration - a statement made under oath - that she did not want any contact with her four other children. She also signed a letter authorising the son, a professional in his 40s, to handle her finances - her worth is estimated to be in the millions.
The son has prevented his siblings from visiting. He refuses to open the door when they show up, and they have not seen their mother, who is in her 80s and uses a wheelchair, for over a year.
The woman's other children suspect that he has got her to make him the sole beneficiary in her will, Mrs Chua said. They are now exploring their options to gain access to their mother, she added.
Many cases of financial abuse involve a son abusing his mother.
Said Mrs Chua: "Mothers tend to give in to their children's demands more often than dads. Traditionally, mothers dote on their sons more, so some take advantage of this."
Associate Professor Ruby Lee of the National University of Singapore Law Faculty said financial abuse is a tough nut to crack as most seniors do not want to report the wrongdoing or take their children to court.
Making a police report may not help, because the children's actions, while morally wrong, may not be a criminal offence, she said, citing the example of children reneging on their promise to house their parents after taking the proceeds from selling the parents' flat.
But if a parent has lost his mental capacity due to dementia, for example, and a child is suspected of cheating the parent, the siblings can ask the court to appoint them as deputies to make key decisions on the parent's behalf.
For a start, social workers say it is important to raise awareness of financial abuse so that the elderly can learn how to safeguard their money. Ms Micki Sim, a social worker at @27 Family Service Centre, suggested: "Talk to someone, like a social worker, if you feel you have been exploited and we will see how we can help."