Protecting seniors from elder abuse takes more than justice legislation
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Sun Mar 18 2012.
Canadians hope to grow into their old age happy, financially secure and relatively healthy. But for too many the reality of aging will be much darker. Indeed, it’s estimated that one in 10 Canadian seniors will suffer abuse.
Elder abuse can be physical. It can also involve overmedicating older people to make them docile or neglecting their physical and emotional needs. Some are isolated and stripped of their independence and financial savings. Whatever form the abuse takes, it usually comes at the hands of people in positions of trust: family, friends and caregivers.
The federal government has vowed to tackle the problem with its seemingly cure-all tactic — more justice legislation. Last week, the Conservatives introduced legislation they say would lead to tougher sentences for those convicted of elder abuse.
“Elder abuse is a serious issue and we must do whatever we can to fight it,” says Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. “We have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.”
He’s right about the need to protect vulnerable seniors. But it will take more than a tweaking of the Criminal Code to do it. Here’s an idea: let’s protect seniors by making them less physically and financially vulnerable, thereby preventing much of the abuse from ever occurring.
That would mean working with the provinces on a comprehensive strategy to tackle elder abuse. And, that, unfortunately, is something the Conservative government has shown little interest in.
Elderly Canadians need access to more home care services to increase their independence and more long-term care beds to properly care for them when needed. Family caregivers need more support and respite care to keep them from burning out. And poverty must be reduced, as well.
The roots of elder abuse often lie in poverty, lack of affordable housing, unsuitable living conditions and insufficient caregiver support. Far from improving the situation for seniors, the federal government has rebuffed calls from Ontario to negotiate a health-care accord focused on the needs of the elderly and it plans to trim Old Age Security benefits.
Punishing more severely the very few abusers who will ever be charged is all well and good (and supported by seniors’ advocacy groups) but it is a small piece of the overall need. Preventing abuse will always be preferable to punishing abusers.
That’s why advocates for seniors have long called for the development of a cohesive national strategy to tackle elder abuse. We’re fast running out of time to get this done. In a little over 20 years, one in four Canadians will be 65 and over.
With such a rapidly aging population, we cannot afford to ignore elder abuse — or pretend that stiffer sentences will make it go away.
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