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Out of the shadows – addressing elder abuse

The Vancouver Sun by Sherry Baker 13 June 2011

Last winter a 68-year-old woman in Ontario was found near death in an unheated garage adjacent to her son’s home. The whole country was outraged that something like this could happen in Canada. Did no one in the community notice that something was amiss?

An older woman in Vancouver didn’t know where to turn when her debt-ridden son obtained power of attorney and started pressuring her to sell her home and move into the basement. Having someone to talk to who could help her understand her rights and the consequences of her giving up control of her assets is an important part of living in community.

Ten per cent of Canada’s older adults will experience financial abuse before they die. It is estimated that close to 500,000 seniors in Canada are experiencing or have experienced some sort of abuse or neglect. Financial abuse is often the first sign that a vulnerable person is being taken advantage of. Usually, financial abuse is accompanied by emotional abuse and sometimes physical and sexual abuse are also present. Are their lives being shortened because they have lost their assets? And why didn’t anyone notice?

When vulnerable older people are forced to live in substandard conditions and are denied proper nutrition, their lives are put at risk.

When their health is compromised, their lives are usually shortened and their quality of life is reduced substantially. And, the costs to the government increase with the increase in health care costs.

Since 2001, the number of Canadians over the age of 85 has increased by 43 per cent. In 2011, the first of the baby-boomers are turning 65. The issue of the abuse of vulnerable adults is now coming “out of the shadows” as a result but do we know what to look for? Do we know what to do when we suspect it is taking place? What can we do in our communities to raise the awareness and to prevent it from happening?

Willard Gaylin writes in World of Ideas that “the most important thing we face in the 21st century is a rediscovery of community.”

Recently a coroner in the Okanagan was called to a local motel to investigate the death of an older person. He had starved to death – with food in his fridge.

Why didn’t anyone notice? What could have been done to prevent it? The Community Response Network in that community rose up and held a series of workshops on self-neglect to raise the awareness of the issue and to develop protocols to help address this type of abuse in the future.

In another city in B.C., Bob, an apartment manager, had heard arguments from the suite above, but grew increasingly worried when he saw one of his tenants with bruises on her arm. If an active Community Response Network was in place close to his neighbourhood, Bob would know who to go to report his concerns without fear of retribution.

The BCACRN has a “Gate Keeper” program which helps community members learn what to look for in their neighbourhoods. What can the associates at the local bank do when they see an elderly client being coerced into withdrawing his or her life savings? What can a newspaper carrier do when he or she notices that an older person living alone is not picking up his or her paper? What can you do when you notice that your neighbour is starting to look unkempt and under nourished? Did you know that the designated responder with the local Health Authority is required to investigate reports of neglect and abuse? And, that reports can be made anonymously?

More information and research findings are available from the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, What is Senior Abuse? and Canadian Laws on Abuse and Neglect.

The Department of Justice Canada’s publication Abuse of Older Adults: A Fact Sheet is also helpful. Links to many more resources can be found on the BC Association of Community Response Networks’s website www. bccrns.ca.

June 15 has been declared, by the United Nations, to be World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

Events are planned in communities around B.C. to mark this important day. Wear purple to show your support.

Sherry Baker is executive director of the BC Association of Community Response Networks.