Elder Abuse

Fall 2001 CSANews Issue 40  |  Posted date : Apr 01, 2007.Back to list

When Dr. Elizabeth Podnieks, a Toronto nurse educator, first began taking her students into hospitals, she realized that older people were not being treated respectfully. They were labelled "bed blockers" and skipped over in reports. That was during the early 1980s when the term 'elder abuse' was hardly ever used and certainly not well understood.

Increasingly distressed by what she found, Dr. Podnieks became more interested in both acute and long-term care. As a result of that interest, she managed to secure funding from Health Canada and released a ground-breaking national study on elder abuse in 1992. For her pioneering efforts, she was awarded the Order of Canada. And as a result of her study, the federal government started funding elder-abuse initiatives across the country.

Since those early days, enormous progress has been made in the areas of public education and awareness. Practically every major scientific and educational conference offers presentations about elder abuse, and it has been widely covered by the media. Today, there isn't a region in Canada that isn't aware of a growing problem of elder abuse that needs to be addressed.

British Columbia, for example, is typical of many provinces that have Adult Guardianship legislation that addresses the needs of all adults. As part of this strategy, 70 Community Response Networks around the province respond to abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults. At this time, B.C. CEAS (formerly B.C. Coalition to Eliminate Abuse of Seniors) is the only social agency of its kind in the province whose focus is abuse and neglect issues affecting older adults.

In 1999, the Ontario government announced its new plans to deal with elder abuse. It also announced the formation of a Round Table of experts to provide advice and recommendations. At present, the government is considering proposals put forth by this group co-chaired by Dr. Podnieks.

The program was designed to build on several initiatives already established in the province, such as a Victims' Services phone line, Fraud Alert Calendar and the SeniorsBusters program. In addition, all 43 Community Care Access Centres around the province, which co-ordinate access to such services as visiting nurses, homemakers and therapists, were funded to train front-line staff to deal with elder-abuse issues.

While older people are far more willing to talk about elder abuse, there is still a reluctance on the part of most to report such incidents. Fear of potential consequences is usually the chief factor, whether recrimination from the abuser, the potential of being placed in a care facility, or that the individual is just too ashamed to tell anyone that a family member is abusing him or her.

In the last three years, there were only five criminal charges laid in connection to elder abuse across Canada. To make matters worse, charges were stayed in all five cases. Some factors that complicate such cases include problems with a senior's mental abilities, an attitude of ageism where it is assumed that seniors are less reliable, and a reluctance to involve other people in family problems.

Elder abuse is a complex issue by its very nature. Despite the strides that have been made to identify and understand it, it's generally acknowledged that there's still a long way to go - probably 15-20 years - before the extent of elder abuse is fully known. But, as Dr. Podnieks says, young people are also becoming more and more aware of the issue and, as long as there is a connection between youth and an issue, there's hope.

What Is Elder Abuse?
According to the British Columbia CEAS, elder abuse means an action, or deliberate behaviour by a person(s) in a position of trust, such as an adult child, family member, friend or caregiver, that causes an adult physical, emotional or mental harm or damage to, or loss of, assets or property.

This can be accomplished by various means, i.e. threats, intimidation, humiliation, physical or sexual assault, over/under medicating, withholding medication, censoring mail, invasion or denial of privacy and denial of access to visitors. The main reason for abuse is to establish dominance and control by one person over another.

  • In Canada, between four and 10 per cent of seniors over 65 years old suffer from elder abuse.
  • One in every 12 seniors living in British Columbia experiences some form of abuse, giving the province the highest rate of elder abuse in the country.
  • The most common form of elder abuse is financial. A 1998 study by the Older Women's Network revealed that, in Ontario, financial abuse accounts for nearly two-thirds of elder abuse, followed by verbal abuse, physical abuse and neglect.
  • More women than men experience elder abuse. Female victims of abuse may not have held jobs, have less formal education, are more intimidated by technology and may be more dependent on their spouse or family. Proportionately, women also experience more abuse because they live longer.
Common Myths:

Myth #1: Older victims are somehow responsible for their own abuse or neglect.

Myth #2: Older people are burdens or inconveniences to their families.

Myth #3: Older men are not abused by their
spouses and children.

Myth #4: Certain cultural communities are immune to abuse and neglect.

  • BC CEAS, New Westminster, B.C. Tel: 604-521-1235.
  •  www.mun.ca/elderabuse (Canadian Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse)
  • www.onpea.org (Ontario Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse)
  • www.aoa.dhhs.gov/abus/default.htm (U.S. Elder Abuse Prevention and Treatment Resources)