May 30, 2011

CANADA: Elder abuse often goes unreported in our society

SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick / Telegraph-Journal / Canada East / May 30, 2011

A Toronto couple accused of keeping an elderly mother in despicable conditions at their home have been in jail since the police first discovered the situation. Initially, the couple was refused bail, and in a later hearing they were again remanded into custody. Their lawyer pointed out that this was their first offence, but the judge was having none of that. It appears that the justice system can occasionally become bloody minded enough to keep someone in jail who has deeply offended community standards.

Kwong Yan and his wife, Qi Tan, lived in a suburban bungalow with their daughter, and her mother. Mr. Yan's mother sort of lived there as well. Through this winter, she was kept in an unheated garage, had a bucket of water, a pot, and a bed composed of a blanket on some boards.

 When discovered, she had frost bitten feet, and showed signs of starvation. She suffered from dementia.

A 68-year-old woman lived for four months in a makeshift bedroom -- several sheets of drywall -- set up in an uninsulated Scarborough garage. She is in hospital in life-threatening condition.

Photograph Courtesy:

This was a clear case of elder abuse, and the couple has been charged with failing to provide the necessities of life, and of criminal negligence causing bodily harm. Activists are now demanding that legislation be created to include elder abuse in the Criminal Code of Canada.

I am afraid that elder abuse occurs often in our society. Reporting on this case, the police stated that roughly 4 to 10 per cent of elderly people suffer abuse. This estimate was described by others as a serious underestimation. An American study concluded that for every one case of elder abuse reported, five other cases go unreported.

Abuse of the elderly takes a variety of forms. The foregoing example is abuse because of neglect. Another abuse is a result of abandonment after someone had assumed responsibility for care. There are also physical and sexual abuse. Financial exploitation is a form of abuse as well. This can take the form of relatives taking assets without the consent of the older person, through to workman who offer services or goods, and fail to carry through after receiving the money.

There was a shocking example of elder abuse illustrated in Saint John when an apartment building for low-income seniors was renovated with the residents left inside, and the entire building wrapped in plastic. Left with compromised breathing and no view of the outside for what is now estimated to be over a year, the residents began to suffer from health problems. It is particularly disturbing that this situation was the responsibility of the Department of Social Development.

As the number of seniors double over the next 20 years, elder abuse will join child abuse and spousal abuse as behaviours requiring intervention by the authorities. In the United States Congress, an Elder Abuse Victims Act is being discussed that would improve law enforcement's ability to prosecute crimes against seniors. British Columbia is combining teams of police officers and social workers to investigate cases of elder abuse. The city of Hamilton has the only dedicated squad exclusively investigating crimes against seniors.

At the moment, many elderly people are too embarrassed to report abuse, especially within their families. The National Seniors Council, a federal government agency, has commented on underreporting. It also reports that senior abuse can affect everyone, but it occurs more often when the following characteristics are present. These are: seniors who are older, female, isolated, dependent on others, frail, and having a cognitive impairment or a physical disability. Living in an institutional setting or being cared for by someone with an addiction can also result in higher rates of abuse.

Abuse is normally a crime against the poor and powerless in our society. In this regard, a recent report from Statistics Canada shows a sharp increase in seniors living in poverty. The number of seniors living in poverty jumped nearly 25 per cent between 2007 and 2008. It's the largest increase among any group. Women make up 80 per cent of seniors who have fallen into poverty. The decline into poverty is blamed on the recession.

Our national pension programs had maintained seniors in relatively good financial shape up until this recession. We need to be mindful of the pervasive nature of elder abuse. It's not enough to accept abuse because its victims are old and poor. These are the very people who need care and attention.

Jo-Ann Fellows is a writer living in Fredericton. Her columns on seniors' concerns and on public policy issues appear twice a month.

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