Three years ago, Christchurch nurse Carla Sheehan noticed an elderly man she regularly visited was acting strangely.

He had started becoming paranoid and agitated about things – money, his phone bill, and things missing from his home. He was becoming more stressed, and his health was getting worse.

After several months, she discovered why – a woman the pensioner had befriended had been stealing his money, physically assaulting him and taking advantage of him.

On Monday, Ms Sheehan started a new job on the Age Concern elder abuse team, working to help a rapidly growing number of people in similar situations.

In the past year to June, there were 269 cases of elder abuse in Canterbury reported to the Age Concern, more than double about 110 reported three years ago.

There was previously only one Age Concern elder abuse worker based in Christchurch, but from this month there are now three, as well as one in Timaru, and one on the West Coast.

Age Concern Canterbury chief executive Simon Templeton said that was because the number of elder abuse cases reported had grown every year since before the earthquakes.

He believed it was still only the tip of the iceberg.

He said about 80 per cent of abusers were family members, often an adult child, so the person being abused often kept quiet about it to protect them.

Cases were often reported by friends, neighbours or family members, but sometimes the first sign was when someone in his team was visiting someone elderly and noticed they had their heating switched off, or had barely any food in the house, he said.

Ms Sheehan said her friend was initially very reluctant to talk to her about the abuse from the woman.

“He was very lonely, and he didn’t want to lose his friend,” she said.

It wasn’t until a physical conflict, when the woman turned up to his house with another person and they forced their way in, that he agreed to go to the police, she said.

She said the story had a happy ending – the woman was charged by police, and the pensioner moved to a small retirement home where he was no longer isolated.

But she said the man may not have talked to anyone about the abuse if she hadn’t noticed, especially as his family were not living in Christchurch.

“It was stressful and he felt shame about it. He was highly, highly embarrassed he had been taken advantage of,” she said.

Ms Sheehan’s background was in mental health nursing, but she said the case had inspired her to do more work with the elderly.

“I really want to get in and highlight this. We need more awareness of these problems, and we need to treat our oldies better,” she said.

She believed loneliness was one of the biggest problems behind the rise in abuse, as it left elderly people more vulnerable.

She said that was something everyone could help to change.

“We say it and say it again, but keep an eye out for your elderly neighbours. Check in and get to know them. Get a phone number for them, and a relative’s phone number so you can call someone if you’re worried about them,” she said.

•If you are being abused or suspect a friend, neighbour or family member is being abused, you can get help from Age Concern Canterbury by phoning 366 0903 or through the elder abuse national helpline on 0800 326 6865. You can phone police in Christchurch on 363 7400, or report anonymously through Crimestoppers, 0800 555 111. Help is also available through the Family Violence Information Line, 0800 456 450.

By the numbers

•269 cases of elder abuse were reported to Age Concern Canterbury in the past 12 months

•2121 cases were reported nationally

•79 per cent of abusers were family members

•51 per cent of cases involved financial abuse

•22 per cent of cases involved physical abuse

•21 per cent of cases involved neglect

•In 26 per cent of cases the abuse had been happening for more than two years

Recent cases:

•Last week, 22-year-old Ngahemo Wells was sentenced in Christchurch to two years in prison, after she stole $75,547 from a 77-year-old widow’s retirement savings. Wells told the woman she needed the money as a loan to pay for things like funeral expenses and surgery for friends and family members, but actually spent it on alcohol, clothing, concerts and flights.

•In April, a blind 94-year-old man was convinced to sign ownership of his Christchurch home over to his son’s trust, after the son threatened to abandon him if he didn’t. The son, who was trained as a lawyer but was unemployed, had been living in his father’s home at the time and had already spent most of his father’s savings.

•In November, Auckland woman Cindy Taylor was sentenced to 13 years in jail for manslaughter of her mother, who was found dead in her bed weighing just 29kg, covered in open sores and with 14 broken ribs.