As the old woman with the careworn face shuffled painfully into the room, I immediately recalled her, seven years earlier, striding into my office confidently.
“I want to transfer my properties to my child,” she stated. “I want to get the pension.”
“But why do you want to get the pension when you can live off the rental income?” I asked.
“I worked for 40 years,” came the response. “Non-stop. Overtime and even weekends. Other bludgers who did no work at all are getting the pension. Why shouldn’t I? I’m entitled to it.”
I tried to dissuade her from her chosen course of action: “Even if you go down this path, the deeming provision don’t consider you have made a transfer of assets for another five years. And besides, what happens if for whatever reason your child’s marriage breaks up, they go bankrupt, or your relationship with your child deteriorates?”
“That will never happen,” she snapped. “And my child can do with the extra cash. I’m your client. Do as I say.”
I drafted a letter outlining the pitfalls of such a course of action. I asked her to sign it to indicate that she understood the risks she was assuming. She was insulted, walked out of my office and consulted another lawyer. My boss at the time reprimanded me severely for losing a client.
Now she looked at me, tears in her eyes. Her child, she assured me, is a good person who loves her, but their partner is evil incarnate. Apparently, soon after the properties were transferred into the child’s name, the child became abusive and curt with her. Gradually, visits to her become sparse, occasioned only by a demand that she provide some meagre funds from her bank account. Then, as a complete shock, the family home, built by her and her husband after only a few years in Australia, a testament to their hard work and dreams was put up for sale and she was coldly informed by her child’s partner that she had to vacate. No provision was made for her welfare by her child, who from the moment the property was sold completely cut off contact. Now, bereft of any assets save for her pension and cared for by relatives, she wanted to know what course of action she had, not against her errant offspring, but their evil partner, for surely they were the root of this sorry situation.
Sadly, the above, with some cosmetic variations has become a ‘common’ story for members of the Greek community. Whereas in the 80s, elderly Greeks would gather together to gossip sensationally about which couple had divorced, in the 90s about whose offspring had entered into a mixed marriage, now they congregate to discuss in hushed tones, which of their peers is being bullied, browbeaten and disabused of property by their offspring.
Liana Papoutsis, a member of the Victorian State Government’s Victim Survivor Advisory Council and a human rights and family violence advisor, confirms this: “Elder abuse is an issue I consult on rather frequently. This type of family violence is extensive across all cultural groups in Australia. Of course, at the centre of such conduct is power and control of the elderly person. In the Greek community it is widespread.
A disturbing trend is that adult grandchildren are abusing their grandparents for money, assets, etc. The emotional, psychological and physical abuse is abhorrent. Often elders are combatting their children and grandchildren simultaneously. Sad beyond belief.
There is a disturbing sense of entitlement among Greeks both in Australia and abroad when it comes to real property. Unlike Anglo-Saxon perceptions of property, for whom property is personal and inviolable and the foundation of their legal system, the traditional Greek concept of property is more fluid in that it verges on the communal. As such, there is an attitude that those who own property merely do so as custodians of it for the next generation. According to this view, property is seldom alienated, unless there are compelling reasons and it is held in trust for the good of the family. It is when this traditional view of property ownership is juxtaposed against the Anglo-Saxon view of property encountered in Australia that a clash of values arises.
As a result, our community appears to be witnessing more and more cases of offspring of all generations demanding property from their elderly parents, because they feel they are entitled to it, often engaging in violence, bullying and verbal abuse in order to obtain what they desire. In doing so, the justifications they offer range between: “Give it to me, you’re old, you don’t need it,” to “You’re going to give it to me anyway, so you might as well give it to me now.” These attitudes stem from the Greek legal concept of the νόμιμη μοίρα according to which, (and unlike Australian law) both offspring and a bereaved spouse are automatically entitled to inherit from the deceased spouse/parent’s estate. Of course, in many disturbing cases, the bullying and manipulation, tacit or overt, is perpetrated by one sibling, not necessarily to disadvantage parents, but rather, other siblings who expect or are entitled to inherit property from their parents. Greek welfare society employees and priests who are often called upon to assist victims of elder abuse and are often the first port of call for victims, also state that gambling, drug addiction, and financial pressures also need to be taken into account.
As, according to traditional Greek custom, the corollary to any such entitlement to property, is the residual obligation of looking after one’s parents, many rapacious offspring seek to gain financial advantage by reassuring their parents, that their ‘gift’ will ensure that their offspring will ‘look after them’ which in customary-speak denotes, being cared for in the family home.
In an increasing number of cases, however, that obligation is forgotten or deliberately ignored, in the face of greed and one would venture to suggest, ingratitude.
Federal Member of Parliament Maria Vamvakinou comments on the disconnect between traditional and received values that lead to property alienation and the marginalisation of the elderly, specifically in our community: “I have always held as a better value, that of the ‘collective and the communal’ which is the basis of the extended family and parental support to children and grandchildren. It’s the ‘Greek’ way. Are we now seeing a case of, ‘once was?’ At a time when things are getting harder for everybody, the support of our family is more important than ever, but it appears that selfishness and entitlement has its own ‘rewards’.”
Delving deeper, property acquisition is one of the founding ideologies and values of the Greek community in Australia. How we relate to it, seems to determine how we relate to each other, on various levels. According to some community commentators, the current incidences of property-based elder abuse seem to stem from an inherited over-emphasis on property acquisition and the propensity to cultivate a worldview based primarily on monetary terms, instilled in the latter generations by their parents.
They point to parents using their initial ascendancy in wealth in the early stages in order to manipulate their offsprings’ life choices, for example who their life partner will be, where they will live and how they will bring up their children. As a result, these infantilised offspring, reared without the capacity for initiative or responsibility, are conditioned to view their parents only in relation to the amount of money that is necessary to procure their compliance. When they become old and vulnerable, the tables turn.
Of course this theory does not take into account the fact that most of the victims of elder abuse in our community are not affluent members of the first generation, who remain well informed of their legal and other rights and cling on to their property, a) because it is a reflection of who they are and b) because it is the best form of ‘insurance’ in securing their offspring’s compliance to several core expectations with regard to the manner in which their children relate to them.
Instead, it is usually the isolated, the lonely, the ill-informed and thus the most vulnerable who are the most at risk of the form of elder abuse we are increasingly witnessing within our community.
The breakdown of the structure of our community as we know it, can also be held to facilitate bouts of elder abuse. While latter generations have complained for decades about the intrusiveness of members of their parents’ social and family circles upon their own lives, a phenomenon that contrasts with the emphasis upon individual choice in modern western societies, the disapprobation of that social and family circle once operated as a powerful deterrent to the flouting of one’s filial obligations. In a society where individual choices are sacrosanct and no justification of them needs to be provided to anyone, traditional pressure groups are rendered impotent and the fear of shame or loss of reputation no longer exists.
The above notwithstanding, it cannot be doubted that parents are revered and are still largely at the centre of the Greek Australian way of life and the ‘Greek way,’ as outlined by MP Maria Vamvakinou still informs the manner in which the relationship between child and parent is defined. However, in a constantly evolving and diversifying community, old certainties begin to unravel prior to us having an opportunity to evaluate that change.
Consequently, a significant proportion of elderly and vulnerable members of our community are at risk of abuse, without the possibility of effective peer intervention. While the laws pertaining to undue influence provide a modicum of redress, but cannot assist in cases where parents still refuse to take legal action against their offspring it is incumbent upon us, as a community, to develop strategies to address the issue and provide succour and moral support to afflicted parties, through a) pressing for legal reform on this issue and b) creating or supporting structures within the community that support/house/counsel victims. After all, when all property is alienated and lost, the importance of our community, such that it is, is that we still have, each other.