When David and Maggie Sheehan retired, they moved to Hervey Bay and looked forward to living out their golden years in peace. Instead, they were subjected to elder abuse by Maggie’s son and his partner. This is their story.
Our storyof elder abuse is a fairly typical one. It’s a more common problem than you might think, but it largely goes unreported — it’s hidden in plain sight.
For us, it all started when we left Western Australia and bought an acreage property in Hervey Bay in December 2013. On that property, we built a large shed. We put a flat inside that shed, which we lived in while the house was being built.
About 12 months later, Maggie’s son from a previous marriage — my stepson — decided he’d come over and join us. He moved over from Western Australia as well. He had been separated from his wife for three-and-a-half years, and they had just finalised their property settlement, so he decided to come over and join us.
Things were good for a while. He was a very useful person, and he gave us a hand with building the house. When we moved into it, he continued to live in the flat. It was a good arrangement. We were happy.
Then one day, out of the blue, he said, “I’m going to get back with my wife”. We were a bit gobsmacked about that, to be honest. Then he said, “She’ll be over in three weeks”.
We were thinking, “Oh my god”, but Maggie just said, “Well, whatever makes you happy, son”.
We had grave reservations about this new arrangement, but in December 2015, she arrived. Three weeks later, Maggie copped the first round of verbal abuse from this woman.
It was over quite a simple matter — how to cook spaghetti bolognese — but there was a lot of swearing that went on, and a lot of foul language, which we didn’t appreciate at our age. It’s just not the way we speak.
Over time, these disagreements became more frequent. More vocal. More physical.
On one occasion, Maggie’s son strolled into the house while she was reading a book and accused her of upsetting his wife. She went to get up out of the chair, and he pushed her back into the chair. She went to get up again, and he pushed her back down again. He grabbed her by the arms and shoved her into the chair. The next day, the bruises came out.
In the meantime, they were not working. They were not paying rent. They were not doing any work around the property. They just sat and squatted, essentially, on our property. But they treated us as if they owned the property and we were the lodgers.
They treated us as if they owned the property and we were the lodgers.
We put up with this for 12 months. Maggie had become traumatised by this time, to the point where she was locking the doors. She didn’t want me going outside the house and, if I did, I had to stay within her sight. We had to be careful because we’d realised that, when we went out, they were coming into our house and going through our paperwork.
Maggie said to me, “If anything happens to us, I don’t want these two inheriting this property, so we’re going to go and change our wills”. I was in full agreement with that, because I didn’t work all my life to give those two lazy so-and-sos a retirement fund. We went to a lawyer’s office and we had our wills changed.
While we were there, I said to the lawyer, “We’ve got these two unwanted guests at home. We’ve asked them to leave, and they’re refusing. What can we do?”
“Oh!” she said. “I’m not sure about that. That’s going to be hard. I’ll have to ask a colleague.”
Well, we finished up our wills and we never did get an answer to that question.
Around that time, I happened to see an ad in a seniors newspaper for the Seniors Legal and Support Service. The copy in the ad mentioned ‘free advice’ and I thought, well, that’s the right sort of advice for a pensioner. So we made an appointment and went along to see a solicitor.
We had been keeping a diary of the discussions we were having with Maggie’s son and his partner. We kept track of the dates and what was said, and we presented this information to the solicitor. She said, “Oh, you’ve definitely got enough for an ouster order here.” This was my sort of lawyer.
We had been thinking of going away on an overseas holiday, a seven-week trip. The solicitor told us to go on our holiday and have a think about it. When we came back, if we still wanted to go ahead with it, they would send them the notice to vacate.
We put deadlocks on the doors so they couldn’t get in while we were away. Maggie’s other son, who had no idea what was going on, called us one day and said, “My brother’s pretty upset, he can’t get into the house.” And we said, “You’re damn right he can’t get into the house.” We had to tell him what was going on. That was our first discussion with a family member about the trouble we were having, 18 months after it began.
We put deadlocks on the doors so they couldn’t get in while we were away.
We came back from the holiday and we decided we were going to go through with it. We gave them their ‘30 days notice to vacate or else’ letter. And then a couple of weeks went by and there was no action.
Now, they had a lot of stuff. This was a big shed, over 100 square metres, packed full of their stuff. And there was no sign that they were moving anything. I thought, “Oh, they’re leaving it a bit late here…”
While we waited for them to leave, Maggie remembered that there was a mirror of ours inside the shed, and we decided we wanted it back. It was our mirror, it was an expensive mirror, and we knew that if they did leave, they would take it with them.
I told Maggie I wasn’t going to go around there on my own, so we both went to see them. We called out and banged on the door and there was no answer, but the door was open and I could see the mirror, so I went in and took it.
Well, wouldn’t you know it — with two days left on their 30 day notice to vacate, Maggie’s son came to us and said, “I’ve been to the police. You’ve broken and entered. You took that mirror.”
That became a fairly lively discussion, and it ended with me getting assaulted. And so they called the police… on me.
Two domestic violence orders were filed against us by my stepson’s partner — one against me and one against Maggie. Just a pack of lies.
We had to make four court appearances to sort it all out, but finally, in November 2017, the Seniors Legal and Support Service called to give us the good news that the court had ordered my stepson and his partner off the property. They were also banned from contacting us for a minimum of five years. They’ve since separated.
A lot of elder abuse is perpetrated by family members, so it’s very hard for the people being abused to come forward and take that step. But the sooner you do it, the better. We allowed what was happening to us to go on for far too long… we had nearly two years of trouble, but we could have stopped it within four months.
A lot of elder abuse is perpetrated by family members, so it’s very hard for the people being abused to come forward.
We’re advocates for the Seniors Legal and Support Service now, and we continue to tell our story to anyone who might benefit from it, because we’re trying to get the message across to all the people who are dealing with elder abuse that there is help available and it’s free.
You just have to have the courage to ask for it.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing elder abuse, call the Elder Abuse Helpline on 1300 651 192 for free, confidential advice.