By Griffin Elliot
OTTAWA — Elder abuse is a growing concern in Canada, with data showing that reported cases have almost doubled in the past 10 years.
The security of senior citizens is of particular concern in Canada, which has a large cohort of people who are seniors or soon will be. Almost 25 per cent of the population, around eight million people, will be 65 or older by 2031, based on Statistics Canada data.
Once a hidden problem, elder abuse is increasingly being reported to authorities and the media.
Defining elder abuse
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines elder abuse as any single or repeated occurrence, or lack of appropriate response, happening where there is an “expectation of trust” causing harm or hardship to an older person. The WHO’s emphasis on breach of trust differentiates “elder abuse” from other forms of criminal assault or financial fraud.
Canada’s capital hosts many prevention and protection programs including two dedicated detectives in a specified Elder Abuse Section of the Ottawa Police Service.
Nursing students in the capital are being taught to recognize and identify the signs.
“I have seen what could potentially classify as elder abuse at nursing homes that I have had clinical rotations at,” says Algonquin College nursing student Courtney Walsh.
“Typically the abuse is verbal/emotional if the client of the nursing home suffers from cognitive impairment. Health care workers ignore call bells to the client’s room because they simply do not want to deal with what the patient wants or needs.”
Walsh says that it is very important to give support to family members in the “caregiver role” as stress or improper handling can lead to neglect of the victim or more serious issues.
“Elder abuse is a serious problem in Canada,” Walsh says, but adds that exact numbers are virtually impossible to find because many cases go unreported.
According to a study done in 2013 by Lisa Ha and Ruth Code for the Department of Justice, relatives of the victims are the most common perpetrators of senior abuse. The research shows that in 32 per cent of reported elder abuse cases the offender is related to the victim as a parent or an extended family member, such as a niece or nephew.
By the numbers
Figure A breaks down the reported cases of elder abuse in 2011 by victim and abuser relationship. The data shows friends or acquaintances financially abusing elders were the largest percentage of reported cases. Some column percentages add up to more than 100 per cent due to multiple responses for abuse categories. Based on the data friends are far less likely to be perpetrators of physical abuse.
Ha and Code’s 2013 study says, “The elderly are hesitant to lay charges against their children.” As a result of this, police need to spend a lot of time going over the importance of reporting abuse and the accessible services to help.
In this report, police officers also specified that because the elderly are hesitant to report abuse, often officers must rely on third-party information that can be time consuming, as it requires constant verification.
Figure B shows the total number of reported cases of household victimization versus violent victimization of senior Canadians from 1999 to 2009, based on Statistics Canada data. In this statistic violent is a subset of household victimization. The graph shows a growth in the number of reported crimes against elderly persons almost doubles in 10 years.
Elder abuse can happen both at home and at care facilities where they are often understaffed or undereducated to deal with this type of abuse.
According to Walsh, often hospital caregivers who are in a similar position of authority and trust can take advantage of the elderly.
Where and how it happens
“Nursing homes hire more personal support workers than nurses, so the education level and salary isn’t as high,” Walsh says.
She says there are many different forms of elder abuse. The most common types are physical—including neglect—psychological, emotional, sexual and financial. In addition Walsh describes that we are seeing prevalence of medication, either being withheld or given too much, and spiritual, a denial or chastisement for religious beliefs.
As Walsh and her classmates are in training in nursing programs to deal with recognition of elder abuse and other concerns of a massive aging population, many groups are working on fixing the problem at hand.
CARP, formerly the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, is an advocacy group that focuses on senior’s rights and benefits. The association is pushing for changes in the Criminal Code to giver harsher consequences for perpetrators of elder abuse in the form of longer sentencing. CARP also advocates for an increased number of help hotlines and other services to identify and prevent elder abuse.
Allison Timmons is the Co-ordinator for the Nepean Rideau Osgoode Community Resource Centre’s Elder Abuse Response and Referral Services (EARRS).
“Physical and financial abuse can often come under the criminal code as physical assault and fraud depending on the evidence,” Timmons says.
“The most common and most reported is financial abuse,” Timmons says. “Most often the family of the older adult are the perpetrators. Usually it is the adult children.”
Identify and protect
EARRS lists the following as indicators of possible elder abuse:
- Sudden behavioural changes
- Mental health deterioration- an increase in fear
- Anxiety or depression
- Change in living standards
- Isolation and non-social behaviour
- Inexplicable injuries
- Poor hygiene
- Malnutrition or dehydration
- Unusual banking activities, specifically large withdrawals.
According to Statistics Canada, older women are more likely than older men to be emotionally or financially abused by their family, friends or caregiver.
In 2009, around 107,000 or two per cent of Canadians aged 65 and older said a child, relative friend or caregiver had been emotionally or financially abusive.
A research paper by Elections Canada indicates that, “older women and sponsored immigrant seniors are particularly vulnerable to elder abuse.”
The paper describes that this can be attributed to “increased financial dependency, social isolation, cultural norms, familial status, disadvantage or disability. However, women are slightly more likely to report instances of abuse than men.”
The largest contributing factor to elder abuse is isolation, according to the Ontario Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse (ONPEA). The association says, “Talking to a person is one of the first steps to breaking down this isolation.”
The best way to recognize and prevent elder abuse is by talking to the victim.
ONEPA says if you know someone who is potentially being abused, “make the effort to reach out to the person and talk to them.” They suggest asking simple questions to assess any out of ordinary behaviour.
As Canada’s population ages they are becoming more vocal about the problems and needs of senior citizens and problems like elder abuse will no longer be hidden.
Header photo © Alexander Vlad