Older Canadians vulnerable to abuse

When Mary’s 85-year-old mother who lived alone started forgetting to bathe and turn off the stove, her daughter figured it was time her mom went to a seniors’ home where she could receive more help and supervision.

But Mary’s brother, who had power of attorney for finances and personal care, refused any discussion of the idea, saying that he was regularly visiting the mother’s eastern Ontario home and looking after her. “She’s fine,” he kept saying, making it clear he didn’t want Mary, who lived out of town, getting involved in her mother’s care.

But on her next visit, Mary became so concerned for her mother’s welfare that she started to dig more into her mom’s affairs. She asked to look at her bankbook and discovered several large withdrawals stretching back a couple of years.

Her mother hadn’t taken any trips or made any improvements to her house that would account for the spent money. Mary could come to only one conclusion: her brother, who had been having financial problems, had been dipping into her mother’s money for his own use, which was why he didn’t want Mary nosing around. The 60-year-old was shocked. “This was not something that I ever thoughtould happen in our family,” she says.  

Many forms of harm
Elder abuse encompasses a wide range of harm to older adults. The abuse can take many forms, including neglect, physical and sexual, psychological or emotional abuse or financial exploitation. Financial abuse is the most reported form, making up 50 per cent of cases, followed by emotional and physical abuse and neglect. Victims come from all cultural and socio-economic groups. Most abusers are family members, particularly male spouses and sons.

Because it takes on so many forms, it’s virtually impossible to say how many Canadian seniors are abused each year. Some studies put the number at four per cent of all seniors, though other experts think it could be twice as high, especially when you consider most seniors won’t come forward and admit to suffering abuse.

But as the population of over-65s continues to grow, it’s obvious that the number of abuse cases will grow as well. “We can no longer pretend the problem doesn’t exist,” says Judy Cutler, CARP’s co-director of media relations. “We have to do something about it.”

Maureen Etkin, regional consultant for the Ontario Elder Abuse Strategy, describes elder abuse as a hidden but growing problem. “We need to put it on the public radar,” she says. She compares the issue to domestic violence 20 years ago, when it was hidden in society. “Now it’s out in the open and acknowledged as unacceptable.”

Society needs to give elder abuse the same emphasis, she says. Etkin, who does presentations to raise awareness on the issue to everyone from seniors themselves to health-care workers and police officers who deal with seniors, says people have many misconceptions about elder abuse. “A lot of people think of it like a broken arm that we can go in and fix. But it’s more like the flu. There can be both mild and severe cases and lots of different causes.”

Physical abuse, in particular, can be seen as part of a cycle of violence in a family. Families with a history of domestic violence don’t just improve when the members reach the “magical age of older adults.” In the case of physical abuse, most perpetrators are a male spouse or a son of the victim.

‘Help yourself’ mentality
Financial abuse can involve outright theft of money or possessions, forging signatures on pension cheques or legal documents, misusing a power of attorney or tricking a senior into giving away or selling property. Etkin talks about family members who, knowing that a senior’s possessions will eventually come to them, deciding, “Why shouldn’t we enjoy them now?” Or grandchildren helping themselves to some of Grandma’s things.

Financial abuse can lead to neglect. Etkin gives the example of seniors who move in with family members not having access to the same amenities as the rest of the family.

“We see old couples relegated to the basement,” she says.  Neglect can include actively refusing a senior access to such necessities as food, water, medication or health aids. Or it can take the more passive form of not noticing that a senior’s abilities are deteriorating and that more help is needed.

Psychological or emotional abuse is abuse that attacks dignity and self-worth. Name calling, insulting, shouting, threatening, isolating and depriving of rights are all forms of emotional abuse. This kind of abuse is not necessarily criminal; rather, it’s a general lack of respect as a result of a victim’s advanced age.

Etkin gives an example of a family member who yells at a senior in her care. An observer may think that the caregiver is overloaded or that the victim is difficult to manage. But emotional abuse “… is never an isolated occurrence,” Etkin says. “Rather it’s a pattern of behaviour of escalating severity,” she says. Etkin points to a World Health Organization study that reports that psychological abuse is more damaging that physical abuse, according to seniors.

Raising the profile of elder abuse is an important step in eradicating it. “Our concern is we reach victims and perpetrators and not just preach to the converted,” Cutler says. 

“We need to give victims the courage to speak out,” Bill Gleberzon of CARP says. “They end up thinking it’s their fault,” he adds.