'I must have done something to deserve this'

Kerri Breen
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Elder abuse underreported, new legislation to help advocates say

The stories hit you in the pit of the stomach.

An ill elderly woman who trusted a relative to make her purchases recovers to find that her savings have been obliterated.

"When she got better and went to the bank there was nothing in there," Lorraine Best said.

The stories hit you in the pit of the stomach.

An ill elderly woman who trusted a relative to make her purchases recovers to find that her savings have been obliterated.

"When she got better and went to the bank there was nothing in there," Lorraine Best said.

"It could be somebody being kept in the basement of a house without adequate heat and food, or it could be in an institutional setting," Rosemary Lester said. "It could be withholding medication; it could be overmedicating."

A senior whose family uses visits to grandkids and providing the necessities of life as leverage to manipulate him into what they want him to do.

Family members who speak for seniors at the bank, restaurants and the doctor's office.

Relatives who only visit when the pension cheque arrives at the end of the month.

Grandchildren dumped on the grandparents, day after day, even though they are on a fixed income and can't afford to feed them.

And, a story ripped right from this week's headlines, a home-care worker is convicted of attacking and robbing her client, an elderly man who said he lives in fear.

It's these real situations seniors face that motivate Lester and Best of the Seniors' Resource Centre and the Elder Abuse Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Best has been a volunteer peer advocate at the centre. She answers the organization's toll-free information line, where she hears these disturbing accounts. More often than not, nothing is done about them because the abuse is perpetrated by the families of the abused, and the elderly individuals do not want to press charges. They depend on their families to get by.

"They don't want us to go any further than that," Lester said. "It's family, there's guilt involved, there's shame involved."

As they explain, there are no reliable statistics on the prevalence of elder abuse.

"Because it's such an underreported - maybe unreported - crime," said Lester, who chairs the provincial committee.

A generally accepted estimate is between four and 10 per cent of seniors in Canada.

Elder abuse takes many forms: Financial, physical, emotional and sexual, and active and passive neglect - often with different forms occurring at the same time. Some of it is unintentional.

This province's only legislation to deal with the problem specifically only deals with neglect. It's a major barrier to punishing those who abuse seniors, according to Best and Lester.

After lobbying for about 20 years, new legislation is likely to be put forward by the end of the year.

"The new act is going to talk about abuse, and it's going to talk about support," Lester said. "It's going to be much broader it its reach ... as far as we can tell."

The elder abuse committee was very involved in the consultation to replace the Neglected Adults Welfare Act.

It has forwarded a community response model to the provincial government in the hopes that its implementation will mean the same supports will be offered to all and the incidence of elder abuse will be captured statistically.

Another barrier is that many abused seniors don't consider what's happening to them to be abusive. Some blame themselves.

"You hear a lot about, 'I must have done something to deserve this,'" Lester said.

The resource centre often hears from concerned friends and family members than seniors themselves.

Best and Lester said the root of abuse seniors' abuse is ageism.

"We don't, as yet, value (seniors) for what they can do and what their contributions have been and can still be," Lester said.

Best gives public presentations on the issue. She and Lester say awareness is important in fixing a highly complex problem that's entrenched in other social issues.

"The only way really to address a lot of this is by older people themselves understanding better that they have rights in all of this and that it's not something you should be ashamed to talk about," Lester said.

With a rapidly aging population, they expect incidences in Newfoundland and Labrador to increase unless attitudes change.

telegram@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Resource Centre, Elder Abuse Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador

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