By Melissa Mortimer
*All names have been changed
When Mark’s widowed father, Tony, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he wanted to do all he could to help. With 80-year-old Tony in Toronto, and him in Calgary, Mark relied on his sister to be the point of contact.
Until then, Tony had been spending winters in Florida, summers at his cottage near North Bay, and the rest of the year at his Toronto apartment. During his initial treatment, Tony was able to continue living independently and seemed to be well on his way to recovery.
So, Mark was surprised when his sister Kathleen called him a month later to announce that Tony would be giving up his other homes and moving into her Ottawa home because he needed more care, and this was “the only way she could manage it.” Tony had been doing well, so Mark was puzzled by this development.
When Mark asked his dad if he was okay with this decision, Tony seemed hesitant to discuss it, saying that “it was just easier this way.”
“He sounded afraid of her,” said Mark.
This was the first sign that something wasn’t right, and it wasn’t until Tony died 10 months later that Mark discovered the extent to which Kathleen had been mistreating their father and abusing him financially.
Behind Closed Doors
A serious social problem affecting millions of older people around the world, elder abuse is rarely discussed and, until recently, mostly hidden from public view. It’s considered a private matter, but one that is underestimated and often ignored.
Elder abuse is predicted to increase, as many countries experience rapidly ageing populations, with the number of people aged 60 years and older projected to grow by 38 percent, from 1 billion to 1.4 billion.
As experienced by Tony, financial abuse occurs when somebody tricks, threatens, or persuades older adults out of their money, property, or possessions. Misusing a power of attorney is a common form of financial abuse.
According to the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, financial abuse is one of the more common forms of abuse perpetrated against older people, accounting for about 20 per cent of all substantiated elder abuse perpetrated by others.
It is also estimated that, for every known case of elder financial abuse, four to five go unreported. The effect of financial abuse on older people is devastating. In addition to robbing them of their economic resources, it often causes extreme emotional distress or depression, increased dependence on others, and a diminished quality of life.
Troubling Signs Ignored
Ten years after his father’s death, Mark still feels he let his dad down by not doing more to protect him. “It was obvious that my sister wanted money and seemed to be constantly getting Dad to go to his bank to get her cash. I’m just grateful he didn’t sign over Power of Attorney because it could have been a lot worse.”
There were more troubling signs. Kathleen had Tony sign over title to all of his properties to her, which she quickly had appraised and put up for sale. When Mark did get to Ottawa to visit his dad, she would rarely allow them to be alone together. “Dad called her his ‘jailer’ after she refused to let him have a second glass of wine with dinner,” he said.
“Friends and family members often know that abuse is happening,” said Bénédicte Schoepflin of the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (CNPEA), “but they don’t know what to do about it. And complicated family dynamics often make it harder to speak up.”
By the time Mark tried to step in, Tony had been admitted to hospice care in a local hospital. Even more troubling, Mark learned from another family member that Tony had been resuscitated against his wishes.
“I was horrified,” said Mark. “I think my sister was keeping him alive long enough to get things into place so when he died, she would get everything.”
“I should never have let him walk into that situation,” said Mark. “Dad deserved better.”
Caregivers Can Also Feel Abused
Caring for an elderly family member with failing physical and/or cognitive health provides enormous challenges and can significantly affect the health of the caregiver as well.
“Self-care is not important when you’re pushed for time and money,” said Schoepflin, “plus many caregivers are sandwiched between the needs of their own growing family and an elderly family member. People feel so alone.”
Amy knows this feeling all too well. “My mom lived with us for the last eight years of her life and the first five years were great,” she said. But as her mom’s physical health began to decline, Amy found herself struggling to cope with the increased care her mom required and the demands of her three active teenagers.
“I never had enough time, and someone was always getting the short end of the stick. Even worse, I was starting to hate my mom and that scared me.”
Help for Caregivers
Family caregivers can lower their risk of committing abuse by finding ways to cope.
“That’s why public education is so important,” said Schoepflin. “People might not see it in themselves or realize how they’re treating an older person is a form of neglect or abuse.”
“Reaching out and talking to someone who you feel will listen without judgement can be a big help,” he added. “There are services and support available in most communities. Start with your local health and social services.”
Finding a caregiver support group helped Amy learn to ask for help from other family members and how critical it was to carve time out for herself. “The people in my group were a lifeline for me,” she said. “I could share some of my darker thoughts without feeling judged. It made me feel less alone.”
If You’ve Been Abused
If you are an older adult who has been abused or mistreated, call the Seniors Abuse & Information Line (SAIL) at 604-437-1940 or toll free at 1-866-437-1940, seven days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., to get a referral to their legal advocate and other programs. For more information about their programs and resources visit Seniors First BC.
If You Suspect an Elder is Being Abused
- Learn the warning signs of abuse. Learn what you can do to help, and what the law says you must do when someone’s safety is at stake. If you’re not sure what to do, or if you need support, check with a professional.
- DO NOT confront or accuse the abusive person. They may take it out on the older adult.
- Talk to the older adult. Wait for a time when you are alone and not likely to be interrupted. Ask caring questions; don’t impose answers. Listen to the person’s experience. Ask what they want.
- Respect rights and personal values. Those rights include confidentiality, privacy, and self-determination. Mentally capable adults have the right to make decisions, including choices you might consider risky or unwise.
- Seek consent or permission. In most cases, you should get consent from an older adult before taking action. This includes getting consent before sharing the older adult’s personal stories, financial information, or health information with anyone else. Look for the least intrusive ways to offer help. If the person you are worried about doesn’t want to take action, respect their choice. Keep the lines of communication open. However, if the situation is dangerous, don’t hesitate to call the police or 911.
- Get informed. If you work with older adults, you need to educate yourself about elder abuse. Know that abuse and neglect can happen anywhere and by anyone.
Adapted from Neighbours, Friends and Families for Older Adults and from the Canadian Centre for Elder Law's A Practical Guide to Elder Abuse and Neglect Law in Canada, p. 5.
Melissa Mortimer is a writer and filmmaker from Vancouver, B.C.
The questions below will help stimulate discussion among family members, friends, groups of seniors, and with health care providers.
- Have you witnessed acts of elder abuse, or been told about them by a family member or friend? What did you do about it?
- If you did nothing, what prevented you from speaking up?
- Do you think you have been a victim of elder abuse? What form did it take?
- Do you fear ending up in a situation where you could be a victim of elder abuse?
- Do you think our government is doing enough to protect older people from abuse?
- Are you concerned about the staff shortages in care homes?
- What are some ways you can protect yourself from financial abuse and other scams?
- Have you been a caregiver to an older person? What are some of the challenges you faced?
- Did you ever find yourself feeling overwhelmed, caring for an older person and how did you cope with it?
- Could you recognize some of the signs of elder abuse?
- Do you think elder abuse is a private matter?
- How could you help educate seniors in your family and community about preventing elder abuse?
- What are some ways older people can be better advocates for their physical and emotional needs?
- Is there a person or particular group of people who would benefit from you sharing this story?
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One in Ten Elders is Abused
The World Health Organization defines 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.”
Most instances of elder abuse are committed by family members and caregivers of older people, many of whom find it hard to speak up about what is happening.
In 2018, according to Stats Canada, there were 12,202 cases of police-reported violence against older adults in Canada, 33 per cent of whom were victimized by a family member.
Elder abuse can occur in a number of ways, from financial and emotional abuse to physical and sexual abuse.
A 2022 study based on data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, found that:
- One in 10 older adults across Canada experience some form of elder mistreatment each year.
- Older adults with greater vulnerability related to physical, cognitive and mental health status, and shared living were at higher risk of elder mistreatment.
- Older adults identifying as black or reporting financial need were at heightened risk of elder mistreatment.
A recent report from the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN) in Australia, identified 50 sexual assaults in residential aged care each week. Most of the victims/survivors are people living with dementia and most are women.
For Bénédicte Schoepflin, of the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (CNPEA), treating older people with the dignity and respect they deserve is “the only way we can begin to affect systemic and cultural change.”
“Older people are you in a few years,” said Schoepflin, “so think about what you want for the older people in your life and, more importantly, what you’ll want when you’re older.”
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