Elder Abuse and Neglect

Spring 1999 CSANews Issue 31  |  Posted date : Mar 01, 2007.Back to list

Until the 1980s, many of us felt that it could not happen in our families, on our street or in our community. With the assistance of professional and volunteer organizations across Canada, we continue to penetrate the secrecy surrounding elder abuse.

Every year in Canada, at least 4% of Canadian seniors living in private dwellings are abused by family members or other intimates. This translates into approximately 98,000 older adults across Canada. Unfortunately, this abuse does not happen solely at home. Institutional abuse of older adults, including mistreatment by staff, other patients or visitors in nursing homes and other care facilities also occurs.

The fact that more people are growing older and increasing numbers of older people are living longer has prompted both professionals and non-professionals to take a stand in defense of vulnerable elderly adults, not just nationally but internationally. Clearly, there is a great need for us to recognize and address the abuse of older persons in our society.

Canadian organizations and networks such as The Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, affiliated with the University of Toronto focuses upon the prevention of neglect and abuse of older adults through education, advocacy, legislation and information.

The abuse of older adults is a very complex issue and there are no simple explanations regarding who is abused, who commits abuse and why it happens. There is no one reason for its occurrence, as situations and motives vary widely.

What is elder abuse?
Elder abuse is any pattern of behaviour by a second party that results in physical, psychosocial or psychological harm to an older person.

Types of abuse:
Physical abuse is the perceived intention of causing physical pain or injury to another person.

Psychological abuse is any action intended to impose emotional pain or anguish (i.e. humiliation, threats, isolation, verbal assault).

Financial/material exploitation involves the misuse of money or property by threat, deceit or force.

Neglect through an active or passive behaviour results in the deprivation of the senior's basic needs such as food and shelter, health services, and medication.

Who are abusers?
They are often family members (spouses, adult children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews), friends, caregivers. They may also be non-family members such as neighbours or a paid caregiver.

Who is the victim?
Any older person can be victimized. Women over the age of 75 who have some physical or mental impairment are especially vulnerable.

Signs and symptoms:
Victims of elder abuse may show signs of:

  • Depression, fear, anxiety or passivity
  • Unexplained physical injuries
  • Dehydration or lack of food
  • Poor hygiene, urine sores or bed sores
  • Over-sedation

Why is elder abuse not reported?
Some victims do not report abuse because:

  • They are afraid of retaliation
  • They think they will be put in an institution
  • They are ashamed that a family member mistreats them
  • They think that the police and social agencies cannot really help them.

People may be suspicious that someone is being abused but they do not report it; they do not know where to go, or how to help, or they may not want to get involved.

Where to get help?

  • Police
  • Public Health Department
  • Community care access centres (CCACs)
  • Community information centres
  • Info ability (in Ontario) 1-800-665-9092
  • Community legal clinics
  • Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse 416-978-1716
  • Nationwide, The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence distributes publications and videos on the issues of the abuse of older adults, child abuse, violence against women and family violence in general. Publications are available in alternate formats upon request. Toll-free telephone: 1-800-267-1291

Elder abuse, like all forms of family violence is unacceptable. Many acts of elder abuse are crimes and should be dealt with under the criminal code. Cultural differences, family differences, individual differences make our society rich. These differences also make it dangerous to generalize. We should never assume that abuse is happening or not happening, each case of elder abuse is unique so assess each situation but do not jump to conclusions. Look for risk factors and, if suspicious, get help appropriately. Everyone shares the responsibility of responding quickly to help any person who is suffering abuse.

Information provided by Dr. Elizabeth Podnieks, Chair, Board of Directors for the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse.