The myths surrounding elder abuse
TheStar.com – Opinion – The myths surrounding elder abuse
Published On Wed Nov 11 2009. By Carol Goar Editorial Board
Hidden for generations, elder abuse is steeped in myths, presumptions and half-truths. Cutting through this misinformation is one of the biggest challenges facing people who work to protect vulnerable seniors.
Here are a few of the common misconceptions:
• Most cases of elder abuse occur in nursing or retirement homes.
In fact, family members are by far the greatest perpetrators. The victim usually loves, trusts and depends on the person hurting him or her.
• The majority of the victims are mentally incompetent.
In fact, most are quite capable of making decisions for themselves. Their bodies may be frail or disabled, but they know what’s going on. They remain silent because of fear, shame or a misguided belief they gave the abuser a reason to mistreat them.
• Elder abuse doesn’t happen in affluent families.
In fact, it crosses socio-economic lines. Retired OPP investigator Ed Linkewich, chair of the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, remembers one case in Timmins. A prominent local surgeon locked his mother in a room of his well-appointed home. He was charged with criminal negligence causing death.
• Where there are no bruises or visible signs of distress, there is no abuse.
In fact, many elderly people are harmed in invisible ways. They are stripped of their savings, forced to sign over their homes and possessions, threatened, humiliated, intimidated or simply neglected by a caregiver on whom they depend.
• Elder abuse happens primarily to women.
Women do suffer the greatest physical harm, but men are by no means immune to beating, exploitation and forcible confinement. Any older person can be a victim.
• Seniors who seek help will be sent to an institution. Their caregiver will be jailed. They will never see each other again.
In fact, adult protection laws in most provinces stipulate that seniors have the right to make their own decisions, even if it means staying in an abusive environment. Social service workers follow the principle that the least intrusive form of intervention is the best.
In Ontario, criminal charges are considered a last resort. Before taking the court route, the province and its community partners offer a range of services that can eliminate – or at least alleviate – the abuse. A combination of home care, Meals on Wheels, regular visits by a friendly volunteer and counselling and support for an overburdened caregiver can be enough to keep a vulnerable senior safe.
The good news is that elder abuse is no longer a taboo subject. Governments, police and community activists are working, with government support, to raise public awareness of the issue. Every province now has adult guardianship legislation. Most jurisdictions have victim support lines (the government’s toll free number is 1-888-579-2888. The seniors’ safety line operated by the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Violence is 1-866-299-1011).
The federal government has allocated $13 million to a three-year national advertising campaign entitled Elder Abuse – It’s time to Face the Reality.
A growing number of police forces have specially trained officers to investigate reports of elder abuse without frightening seniors. British Columbia pairs police officers with social workers who know how to approach traumatized seniors.
“Elder abuse is where child abuse was 30 years ago,” says Teri Kay, executive director of the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. “In the last two or three years, the momentum has really grown.”
But there is still a long way to go. Too many Canadians believe a family’s privacy trumps the safety of its members. Too many seniors would rather die than admit a loved one is abusing them.
No one should have to make that choice.