Elder Abuse - Myths and Reality

by Diane M. Hoffmann, CACA

Diane Hoffmann speaking at the Campbell River Seniors Center.

In the wake of the Government's Introduction of the new Legislation to Better Protect Canada's Seniors, I feel it is important to bring this issue of seniors abuse to the forefront of our society at this time.

With the aging of our population, all segments of society should be aware of the increasing problem of Abuse and Exploitation of Older Canadians.

First, let's look at elder abuse...

According to the Department of Justice web page, when defining abuse of older adults, there are three circumstances within which abuse occurs:

1. abuse of older adults who are either living alone or with family members, in private residences -- including those receiving home care or community care.

2. abuse of older adults who are living in institutions

3. self-neglect by older adults.

An older adult may experience one or more kinds of abuse, including:

-psychological and emotional
-spiritual abuse.

Abuse of older adults may refer to violence, mistreatment or neglect that older adults living in either private residences or institutions may experience at the hands of their spouses, children, other family members, caregivers, service providers or other individuals in situations of power or trust.

Is it senior abuse or unrelated

We need to recognize whether the abuse is specifically targeted to a senior because abuse does happen at any life stage through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age - and old age.

For example, I remember one of my aunts who lived all her married life with an abusive husband. He did not hurt her physically, but very much so psychologically and emotionally. the abuse was not new when they grew into their senior years.

Consequently, some abuse may arise from unrelated factors such as conflict in an intimate relationship, while other types of abuse may be related specifically to their age. The nature and consequences of abuse may differ depending on the person’s situation.

Relationship of abuse

Elder abuse may be related to their living arrangement; they may be living alone, with family members or friends, or in an institution. Their experiences may also be linked to how much they rely on others, including family members or care providers, for assistance and support in daily living.

In private homes setting, abuse may relate to the level of financial or emotional dependence on others, or the abuse could relate to the level of emotional or financial dependence others have on the older adults.

In long-term care facilities, according to the department of justice's paper on the issue, abuse may relate to the often-intimate processes requiring staff assistance, including feeding, bathing, dressing and moving as well as the provision of medication and other treatments.

It is important to note that reports show that most abuse take place within the informal careging -- that is the care received within the home and family members -- rather than in formal settings such as senior assisted living and care institution.

Some Statistics

According to some latest information from Seniors Canada web site, it is estimated that somewhere between 4% to 10 % of seniors in Canada experience some kind of abuse.

New research conducted by Environics for Human Resources and Social Development Canada has provided the following information about Canadians' awareness of the issue of elder abuse:

*96 % of Canadians think that most of the abuse experienced by older adults is hidden or goes undetected.

*22 % of Canadians think that a senior they know personally might be experiencing some form of abuse.

*90 % of Canadians feel that the abuse experienced by an older person often gets worse over time.

Raising awareness among seniors about their right to live safely and securely is seen as the most important issue for governments when it comes to elder abuse with 9 in 10 Canadians (90.5 %) rating it as a high priority.

*67 % of Canadians feel that older women are more likely to be abused than older men.

*12 % of Canadians have sought out information about a situation or suspected situation of elder abuse or about elder abuse in general.

*Almost 1 in 20 Canadians (5 percent) have searched the internet for information specifically about elder abuse issues.

The need to make people aware

This subject of elder abuse is too lengthy to cover in depth in an article.

But two important things are that in order to change the situation of elder abuse in our communities, 1) we need to make people aware that it should not be ignored nor tolerated and 2) individuals need to watch over each other.

The right of the abused individual

People also need to know that if abuse is suspected, one needs to be aware that the abused person has the right to refuse their situation be reported.

What can you do about suspected abuse?

It is important to be aware that in abuse cases one must be cautious and know what can and cannot be done. There is a lot to know about the legal aspect of it which is again beyond the scope of this article.

One important point is that you cannot just simply report a “suspected” abuse case.

Legally an older person has the right to refuse assistance -- unless there is justifiable reason to believe that –

~ the older person is not competent,

~ the criminal code has been violated,

~ or the older person is a risk to others.

Seniors are reluctant to press charges for a variety of reasons:

1._Most cases of abuse are perpetrated by a family member. Older persons are often ashamed to admit a family member would do such a thing.

2._The abuser may be threatening to withhold access to resources, friends or grandchildren, if disclosure is made – which would lead the senior to further isolation.

3._The life experience of an older adult is such that they grew up in an era where you simply do not “air your dirty laundry in public”.

4._Fear of the unknown. The abuser may not be great but to the senior person, this may seem better than the alternative of being alone or in an institutional setting.

5._Particular concerns exist also for immigrant older persons who are afraid that their sponsorship may be threatened if they report.

6._There is a very real concern that the abuse could escalate before any help intervenes.

7._Plus, criminal matters affecting older adults tend to get diverted into health care and social services systems, which means that a case could become very lengthy, complex, and complicated.

Public trustees can immediately freeze finances or living routine and thus begin a big bureaucratic process.

Provincial laws.

This is a complex issue that goes to the core of Provincial Laws which is, as already indicated, beyond the scope of this article.

Further steps need to be taken if there is suspicious senior abuse, which may require getting in touch with legal professionals within the Adult Guardianship Act and other legal jurisdictions.

Do your research first. Ask questions without mentioning names and find out if you have a case to be reported because there can be long-term consequences.

So what CAN you do beyond the legal aspect?

According to experts in the field, if you suspect a senior is being abused, don’t abandon that person just because they may be reluctant to disclose such situations…

~ You may be their only link to human contact.

~ Be there for them and keep an eye on the situation.

~ Find a phone # where the senior can get help if needed.

~ Find out what you can and cannot do by talking to professionals without mentioning names.

One of those phone numbers to call first would be your local Health Authority who will be able to direct you to the proper channels according to your specific case.

With this, let us move to what the Seniors herself/himself at the individual level can do to safeguard their own living situation:

Tips for Older Adults:

1._Stay sociable as you age, maintain and add to your network of friends and acquaintances.

2._Keep in contact with old friends and neighbours, if you move in with a relative or change to a new address.

3._Develop a “Buddy System” with a friend outside of the home. Plan for at least weekly contact and share openly with this person.

4._Ask friends to visit you often – even brief visits allow for observations of your well being.

5._Participate in community activities.

6._Have your own telephone, post and open your own mail.

7._Arrange to have your pension cheques or other income deposited directly into your bank account.

8._Get legal advice about arrangements you can make now for a possible future disability, such as powers of attorney.

9._Keep accurate records, accounts and lists of property/assets available for examination by someone you trust, as well as by the person you or the court has designated to manage your affairs.

10._Review your Will periodically and do not make changes to it without careful consideration and/or discussion with a trusted family member or friend.

11._Give up control of your property or assets only when you decide you can’t manage them.

12._Ask for help when you need it.

13._Discuss your plans with your attorney, physician or family members.

What are the myths in all this reality?

The myths in all of this are the prejudices, assumptions and misconceptions about aging, imposed on the older population and voiced within the following mindset of society:

1._The negative attitudes towards aging.

2._The stereotyping of older people as being vulnerable and unaware of what is happening around them.

3._The conditioned acceptance of violence.

4._The increased materialism.

5._The family attitudes towards inheritance and the control of assets of older people.

6._The lack of protective mechanisms against financial or other types of abuse and limited community resources.

For those who work with Older Adults:

Older Adults in Canada have identified five core principles that are inter-related and that promote their overall health and well-being.

These are principles that underline the older adults’ value as worthy human beings and full members of society.

Principles to guide delivery of emotional support and practical assistance:






The prevention and alleviation of elder abuse is a challenging issue for governments, professionals and communities.

The profoundly damaging impacts of abuse on older people, the complex causal factors and the array of sectors and professional groups which have a duty to respond to the problem, suggests a coordinated strategy for prevention and alleviation of abuse of older adults is necessary.

Let’s remember that:
“Any abuse not interrupted will continue and accelerate.”

(Much of the above information and the tips for seniors have been gleaned from Age-Friendly Business™ materials and Government of Canada web sites.)


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