Let’s talk about elder abuse

Gerry Phelan
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I went back to school last week. That’s what it felt like as I sat in a room with other “getting up there” people. I was learning about elder abuse. It’s easy to think the victim is someone else’s granny. The reality is much different.

Elder abuse happens in the bathroom and at the supper table, in the banks and at the grocery store. It happens in rich neighbourhoods and rural communities, in nursing homes and, yes, our homes. At a recent meeting of the NL Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, I heard that 8,000 seniors in our province could fall victim to the crime, and it is that — a crime.

The World Health Organization describes elder abuse as “a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person.”

All that is just a complicated way of saying it is mistreatment of those who are getting on in years. The abuse may be physical, psychological, emotional, financial or simple neglect.

I’ve written on this subject before, and jumped at the opportunity to attend several free Seniors’ Safety Seminars offered by the Public Legal Information Association. It is money well spent by the New Horizons for Seniors Program.

One of the sessions dealt with fraud, identity theft and telemarketing scams. Seniors are often targets, and for obvious reasons. Many of us grew up trusting people, but times have changed. We may not want to mistrust, but we always have to be on our guard.

It may be uncomfortable, but say no if the store clerk wants to take your credit card out of your sight. If someone asks for your personal information, ask why. Go with your gut. Chances are if it feels uncomfortable, it is wrong.

We also discussed financial abuse and all its ramifications. I’d heard stories of caregivers clearing out the bank account of a senior, but it really strikes home when you are warned it could be a son or daughter. Sally has mom’s debit card to get her weekly groceries, but before long Sally’s wants and needs come out of mom’s cash. A financial adviser reminded us, “money does strange things to people.”

Perhaps we’ve even said these things ourselves: “Mom would really want that,” or “it will be mine after they’re gone, so I’ll just take it now.”

A sense of entitlement can be a terrible curse. It can also be abuse. It’s tough and, yes, disgusting when you have to watch out for family members who make their regular visits on cheque day. Who wants to accuse a brother when dad’s possessions start to disappear for no reason?

We are told abusers usually know the victim and hold power over them. It could be a spouse, a friend, a caregiver or a landlord. For the senior who catches on, there are dozens of reasons to turn the other way. They likely ask themselves, “who will take care of me?” They may be afraid they’ll be put in a home, and in some cases blame themselves, thinking, if only I had been a better parent.

That’s the nub of the problem.

You are not to blame. Nothing justifies abuse. Tell someone.

The Protecting Canada’s Seniors Act, which took effect earlier this year, promises tougher sentences for those who take advantage of the elderly. The victim’s age is now considered an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes. It’s about time.

Education and planning are the keys to preventing elder abuse from becoming an epidemic as our society ages. Given the state of our government finances, all of us are going to need a lot of help in our retirement years.

The Seniors Resource Centre has done extensive work on elder abuse. There are now numerous training sessions for volunteers and service providers. I encourage all who can to take advantage of such sessions.

We must recognize elder abuse, in all its forms, as the crime it is.

We need to say enough is enough.

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former

broadcaster. He can be reached at


Organizations: NL Network, World Health Organization, Public Legal Information Association Seniors Resource Centre

Geographic location: New Horizons

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