Violence Behind Closed Doors: Time To Face The Reality About Elder Abuse
A high-profile murder case shines a spotlight on how far elder abuse can go.
Lethbridge, Alta., is a sleepy agricultural hub in the middle of the Prairies, quiet and split by a deep coulee along the Oldman River.
In the winter of 2016, Lisa Freihaut and her husband drove south from Calgary to visit her mother, Irene Carter, who lived in the city’s south end. When they arrived—they claimed—the couple found 78-year-old Carter dead on the floor, her body maimed by multiple stab wounds. Soon afterwards, a distraught Freihaut spoke at a police press conference, appealing to the public for any information they may have in regards to her mother’s death. On a blue background in front of the glare of the cameras, she became the classic image of a family member in mourning.
But at the time, she was a person of interest in the investigation. And, in late April, 51-year-old Freihaut was charged with second-degree murder. According to the police, a disagreement about finances between her and her mother had turned sour.
Irene Carter’s case is a tragic example of how elder abuse permeates everyday relationships and can lead to serious crime, without much warning. Though the outcome rarely leads to murder, in her death Carter has shone a light on just how far elder abuse can go.
According to a report from the National Seniors Council, released in 2007, it’s estimated that between four and 10 per cent of elderly people in Canada experience some kind of abuse—but the abuse itself can be hard to define and is therefore under-reported. A recent CARP poll suggested that 30 per cent of members knew someone who had been subjected to elder abuse.
“It’s difficult to capture actual numbers of abused, mainly because it’s so under-reported” says Wanda Morris, CARP’s COO and VP of Advocacy. “It’s a cruel paradox that victims are often entirely dependent on the abuser. So while they may fear for their lives and want to go to the police, they worry they’ll lose their lone supporter if they do report it.”
Those who work in seniors care across the country told the National Seniors Council at a series of meetings in 2007 that financial abuse is the most frequently occurring form of abuse they witness in their work.
The foundations of elder abuse—how it happens, the victims and perpetrators, and how we treat it—have indeed been built along the same parameters of domestic abuse and sexual assault. And like those crimes, “The likelihood that a victim of elder abuse will tell anyone is very low—around 10 per cent,” says Lynn McDonald, principal investigator at the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (NICE). “On top of that, close family [whom you might tell] are the most likely to be abusers. We need to get older people empowered enough to speak up to each other.”
In 2009, the Government of Canada produced and released a series of television commercials on elder abuse, the majority of which focused on opportunities for financial exploitation. But, as McDonald says, investing research dollars into making it easier for elderly people to communicate among each other is not exactly top of mind, no matter the need. “If you’re a gerontologist or geriatrician, you’re often struggling to make the point that older people do matter,” she says. “[Elder abuse] is only going to get worse, in the sense that the population of older people is growing.”
In 2015, NICE completed what’s considered one of the best—and, in fact, one of the only—studies into elder abuse in Canada. In their work, the team used research methods that were originally developed to study the frequency of domestic abuse. “We used a life course perspective, where we asked people if they had been abused as a child or youth, or in their middle-adult ages,” says McDonald. “We were stunned to find a very significant predictor of being abused as an older person is being abused earlier in life. Like victims of sexual assault, elder abuse victims are often scared that others won’t believe them, and they are wary of risking personal relationships by coming forward.” Their report uncovered some staggering numbers—of those who had reported being abused, 46 per cent had experienced some form of neglect or abuse in the past 12 months. And in many cases, they don’t know that they’re being abused at all. “They might say that, yes, they had had their hair pulled but, no, they are not being abused,” says McDonald. “But if they don’t see themselves as victims, we better look into that.”
Pat Power, a social worker at Edmonton Police Service, says elder abuse is chronic—the service often hears from the same victims five or six times in a year. “One of the big things that holds them back is that this is family. For the victims, they see this is their children or grandchildren. That is a dynamic you don’t see in spousal abuse,” he says. “Sometimes it’s been normalized over 30 or 40 years that this is how the family operates, so we have to do some education surrounding how you shouldn’t be treated as a person.
Mah thinks that if elder abuse continues to follow the public discourse trajectory set by domestic assault, soon we’ll be more aware of the problem as a society—and more willing to act on preventive measures.
Social services in Alberta have emerged as leaders in the field of elder abuse prevention and monitoring in Canada. In fact, Family Service Toronto’s apartment for abused seniors was inspired by a group of seven similar apartments, all in Edmonton. “They are often five to 10 years ahead of us,” explains Lisa Manuel, of Family Service Toronto. While this is due to government support over a decade ago, Manuel also credits part of that simply to location and demographics—Edmonton is a smaller city, so it’s easier for social services to work with the police on a closer basis.
That looks like a large group of people from all disciplines sitting down to hash out the problem: “We are literally at the table every week discussing cases of elder abuse,” says Power, at Edmonton Police Service, about the city’s Seniors Protection Partnership. Seated at the table are representatives from the City of Edmonton Community Services, Catholic Social Services and Covenant Health. “We go through to understand if it’s elder abuse, what’s the priority and what are the risks.”
CARP’s Wanda Morris says the association has redirected its advocacy efforts away from increasing sentences for elder abuse perpetrators. “Research shows stiffer penalties do not deter abusers.” Now, CARP is taking a more proactive approach. “We need to fix the problem at the beginning,” says Morris. This means working with all levels of government, community organizations, the police and health-care system.
“As well, we need to provide more provisional support so that those who report their caregivers are not left out on the street,” says Morris. “When they reach out for help, we must ensure help is there for them.” CARP is also calling for an elder abuse hotline as well as a legislated duty requiring professionals suspicious of elder abuse to report it immediately, a law that’s already in place in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.