Elder abuse: Speaking out

A son diverts his father’s pension cheque for personal use. A daughter slaps an old parent or verbally abuses her. A husband harasses his wife. A family member locks a frail relative in a room without enough food or other necessities. An old widow eats her usual breakfast, lunch and dinner of tea and toast. A caregiver ignores the pleas for help from a patient.

These are all manifestations of elder abuse. It’s estimated up to one in 10 seniors suffer some variation of this type of abuse. The actual numbers are probably higher. No one really knows for sure.

^Elder abuse is one of the darker sides of human relationships. It’s a problem many people don’t want to admit occurs. Most often, the perpetrators of elder abuse are family members – spouses, children or other relatives. But it can also occur in hospitals and in long-term care facilities.
Although physical abuse is the most obvious and perhaps the easiest to identify, elder abuse takes many forms:

  • Physical abuse may have been going on in a family relationship for many years. For example, one spouse beats up the other, or a child attacks a parent. This abuse could have come to be regarded asnormal’ behaviour.

    Unfortunately, people grow accustomed to all sorts of interactions, and come to accept certain behaviours most of us would clearly regard as unacceptable. They may believe these behaviour patterns will change or, worse still, blame themselves for having ‘provoked’ the abusive situation. Moreover, habit and fear can create a sense of helplessness, especially as individuals age and become more dependent on others.

  • Financial abuse falls into two categories.
    1. Frauds and scams, usually perpetrated by a stranger who befriends the victim
    2. Deceptive telemarketing, which bilks seniors of their hard-earned savings.

    But the encouraging news is that thanks to heightened public awareness, deceptive telemarketing fraud has fallen by 90 per cent. Still, sophisticated schemes by apparently trustworthy financial advisers continue to steal millions of dollars from seniors.

    It’s also not uncommon for family members to steal the savings and goods of older relatives. They may take pension cheques, drain bank accounts or sell off property without permission.

  • Psychological abuse – usually expressed through verbal put-downs, torments and harassments. This is a subtler form of elder abuse. Ancient hurts, wrongs or resentments – real or perceived – can often be taken out on the one who has become dependent, or vice versa.

    Frustration, weariness and burnout can also degenerate into verbal assaults as part of the ‘burden of caregiving’ assumed by a spouse or child for a loved one at home.

  • Neglect – stories of this sort of treatment of seniors by family members occasionally make the headlines. The type or degree of neglect may vary, but the theme of elder abuse is the same and usually remains hidden.

    Lack of respect for the elderly – and even an attitude of ageism – commonly underlie this behaviour. It’s sometimes easier to ignore the frail than to assume responsibility for their well-being.

  • Self-neglect occurs when – isolated, lonely, alone – individuals cease to care for themselves in a healthy and productive manner. A sense of self-worth or motivation collapses.
  • What’s being done?

    • Frauds and scams are criminal actions, and across Canada, police forces have hired community relations officers to deal with elder abuse. Contact your local police force for information or assistance.
    • Laws have been passed in the Maritime provinces to protect seniors against elder abuse, but there are questions about their effectiveness.
    • In Ontario, residents in nursing homes have legal recourse against elder abuse.
    • And laws are being considered in each province to ensure that children support their aged parents, if necessary, although few parents have as yet sued their children for contravention of these laws. Nevertheless, some provincial governments have taken legal action in a few cases.
    • Also, the Canadian Law Reform Commission is reviewing elder abuse legislation with an eye to developing positive legal and ethical policies.
    • The Ontario government is developing an elder abuse strategy, building on the work of previous governments. Under Professor Elizabeth Podnieks and Helen Johns, minister responsible for seniors’ issues, a roundtable of experts has been established to develop procedures and legislation to protect seniors from elder abuse. CARP is represented in this initiative.
    • Volunteer groups have established ‘safe houses’ for abused people, particularly women and seniors, as sanctuaries from abusive spouses or partners.

    Still to be done
    Clearly, more still needs to be done. Elder abuse must be exposed for the wrong that it is by both society and individuals. As with deceptive telemarketing, exposure and awareness can reduce incidences of elder abuse so that it shrivels in the light of public scrutiny and empowers abused individuals to stand up for their rights.

    Governments must launch an intensive and expansive awareness campaign about the many faces of elder abuse, properly identifying elder abuse as an unacceptable expression of ageism.

    The most difficult part of such a campaign will be creating greater awareness of the issue between both the victims and the perpetrators of elder abuse. Victims are often reluctant to speak out against the spouse, partner, child, relative or formal caregiver abusing them.

    Why? Because they love them, are dependent on them for their well being, or fear that the perpetrator may be punished, leaving the victim isolated or vulnerable to even more abuse.

    Although unacceptable actions cannot be ignored, we must move beyond simply laying blame. Both victims and perpetrators must be made to realize that elder abuse is wrong — the habit must be broken.

    Bill Gleberzon is the Associate Executive Director of CARP and Judy Cutler is the Director of Public Relations.