The time has come to face elder abuse

Elder abuse, like any other form of abuse, is not confined to any particular economic strata, race or religion.

Elder abuse, like any other form of abuse, is not confined to any particular economic strata, race or religion.

There is very little known about this problem and few know how many people live in pain, neglect, poverty and isolation as a result.

“It can happen to anyone regardless of who they are or where they are,” said Bobbi Morgan, Yukon member of the federal government’s National Advisory Council on Aging.

Around the world it’s called elder abuse.

In the Yukon, where the words elder and senior have distinct meanings, it has been named the abuse of older adults.

 “Like all other abuses, we hide our heads in the sand,” said Morgan.

“It has always been there; it’s just now that it’s coming out and being talked about.”

That’s one of the goals of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which will be marked for the first time this year on June 15.

In Canada there is no excuse for allowing people to end their lives in this state, added Morgan.

“As an affluent society we should be ashamed it’s happening.”

One strategy to combat the mistreatment of Canada’s elderly is information — accurate information and lots of it, said Morgan, who is also past president of the Yukon Council on Aging.

“The general public has been made aware that there are abuses in institutions,” she said.

But only about seven per cent of older citizens live in care facilities in Canada, according to a report from the national council.

“It is a home issue; it is a community issue,” said Morgan.

“Just like poverty, it’s everybody’s issue.”

The abuser is almost always someone the elderly person knows — a family member, a friend, a caregiver.

Within families, 71 per cent of violent abusers are either a spouse or an adult child, according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.

Women are more often victimized than men, as often by a spouse as an adult child. Men are more likely to be abused by an adult child.

Seniors who live in isolation, have disabilities or who are cared for by someone with drug and alcohol addictions are also more vulnerable to neglect and mistreatment.

It’s difficult to know how many elderly Canadians suffer abuse.

The most recent statistics are far from current.

About 16 years ago, a phone survey of 2,000 people found four per cent were abused or neglected.

Due to chronic underreporting this number is likely an underestimate, reads the Abuse and Neglect of Older Adults report.

In fact, seven to 10 per cent is a more current national estimate, according to Kip Veale, the Yukon government seniors’ services liaison.

Abuse is not simple to define.

Older adults can suffer from physical, psychological and financial abuse and from neglect.

“It’s all of these things that can take away dignity and control,” said Veale.

But even when the situation seems undeniably abusive, appearances can be deceiving, she added.

What if you go on a house call and find an elderly woman tied into a wheelchair?

Unable to move, use the washroom or eat, she sits alone, tethered to the chair in an empty room.

This would constitute abuse.

But what if there was food within reach and the woman was tied to her chair because she had recently tumbled out and broken her hip?

What if this was the only solution her grandson could come up with to keep her from falling to the floor while he worked during the day?

“It may be someone’s lack of knowledge,” said Veale. “It’s always about knowing the whole story.”

And the territory is leading the way through the halls of justice, to deal with such complex and painful situations.

In the fall, the territory passed a new law specifically aimed at protecting elderly people from abuse.

The Adult Protection and Decision Making Act, which was proclaimed in September 2005, is “not about building an empire,” said Veale.

It’s about giving the elderly more choices if things go wrong.

This includes allowing elderly people to remain in current, worrisome, situations, if they choose to and understand the risks.

In the Yukon wilds, this has particular resonance for some, who have lived their lives in the bush and “would rather die in the bush than be brought to town,” said Veale.

“We don’t want anyone using this legislation because someone is refusing treatment.”

About two years in the making, after numerous consultations, revisions and recommendations with the aid of one of the top legal gerontology experts in the English-speaking world, the law is gaining national attention.

“You’ve all got to read Yukon’s (act),” one judge said at a nation-wide conference Veale attended.

“It’s the best there is.”

This support is particularly important for a community that so often has to reach beyond it’s borders for guidance.

“We always think we’ve got to go Outside, but now we have something we can pass on to other jurisdictions,” said Veale with a proud look in her eyes.

At the heart of the new law is a very simple goal: to support and protect Canada’s oldest and wisest citizens by helping them maintain control over their lives until the end.

While the law can help, it is people who make the real difference, said Veale.

There was an elder who had given up the will to live, she said. He was self-neglecting, having lost his sense of worth. The elders in the community banded together and paid him a visit.

“We need you,” Veale recounted they said. “Your stories are important. You are important in this community.”

And it worked.

“We really believe strongly in autonomy and independence,” she said.

“That’s freedom, isn’t it?”