How to Spot & Help Prevent Elder Abuse

June 15, 2012

By Jeanie Keogh

Abused SeniorWorld Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15thprovides the opportunity for individuals, organizations, communities and governments to recognize and build awareness that many older people experience abuse or neglect.

In Saul Bellow’s book Mr. Sammler’s Planet, an elderly Mr. Sammler witnesses a pickpocket in action on a New York City bus. Being frail, Mr. Sammler contemplates speaking up to stop the crime. But fearful and aware of his own defenselessness, he instead does nothing.

Written in 1970, Bellow predicted a future society in which, little by little, citizens would lose respect for their elderly and elder abuse would be increasingly common.

It turns out he was not far from the truth. In fact, elder abuse has become such an issue that on March 15 this year the Canadian government amended the Criminal Code of Canada to include a provision for “vulnerability due to age.”

It would seem that despite the Federal Elder Abuse Initiative launched in 2009 by the Department of Justice Canada, the problem is not going away. It is estimated that 186,000 to 456,000 elderly Canadians are abused every year

Elder abuse is like any other form of abuse. It frequently involves someone the victim knows well and takes place in the victim’s community. However, it is unique in that it is often age-dependent. People who have never experienced abuse at other stages of life now face it when their living arrangements change or when they rely more heavily on another person or caregiver. It can happen in their own homes, at a long-term care facility or in the homes of their family members. It can include hard-to-detect symptoms such as being over or under-medicated, threats of abandonment or institutionalization (if the senior lives at home) or counselling suicide.

Because abuse cases are statistically under-reported (more than half of elder abuse cases are unreported – Statistics Canada, Victimization of Older Canadians Study) the prevention of it depends on outside help.

“One of the biggest challenges facing researchers of elder abuse is that many suspected cases go unnoticed and unreported,” said Dr. Marilyn Bater, Medical Director of Seniors Health and Department Head of Geriatrics at VIHA.  “Elder abuse is a crime against some of our community’s most vulnerable people.  It is imperative that we all learn to recognize the signs of abuse and know how to help.”

Here’s how you can personally address the issue if someone you know is at risk to elder abuse:

1)      Pay as close attention to the older people in your life as you would anyone else. If you have helped an elder move into an assisted living arrangement, make sure you (and they) do thorough research. Do not assume that once they are receiving care, everything is fine and out of your hands. If they tell you they don’t like the level of care they are receiving, find out why and trust them. Don’t assume their complaints are just because they are having a hard time adjusting to a new environment. Give the older adult the benefit of the doubt.

2)     If the abuse is familial and you are not a family member, don’t assume a hands-off role. If possible, talk to the older adult and present resources and options for them to consider before taking action and involving authority.

3)     Elder abuse covers a broad spectrum – physical, sexual, neglect, emotional and psychological, financial and institutional. If the abuse is physical, don’t assume a bruise or a cut is the result of a fall. One of the after-effects of abuse is shame and fear. As a result, they might be less forthcoming about what is happening behind closed doors. A senior could tell you they have fallen to cover up mistreatment because they prefer secrecy to public scandal.

4)   Don’t draw the immediate conclusion that a report of sexual (or other) abuse is related to dementia or senility.

5)   Check up on an elder. Don’t conclude that someone who has not left their house or had any visitors for some time just likes to be alone or has mobility issues and has a hard time getting around. They might have been abandoned by their caregiver.

6)    Of utmost importance is this: Never suggest or insinuate that the elder must have asked for it or brought it on themselves. This comment is crippling to victims whose biggest fear is not being believed when they reach out to get help.

For additional information, visit the following websites:

The Canadian Centre for Elder Law has an extensive report on the issue including case studies and an outline of elder law specific to each province:

The Department of Justice Abuse of Older Adults Paper on what constitutes elder abuse:

CARP a national, non-profit organization for seniors that offers a wide-range of services including advocacy:

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