Elder abuse warning signs discussed at Elephant in the Room conference

LITTLE CURRENT­––Elder abuse is a decidedly unpalatable subject, but such is the central theme of ‘The Elephant in the Room: A workshop concerning elder abuse’ conference held at the recreation centre in Little Current on Thursday, September 18.

The daylong conference dealt with a wide range of topics central to aging and seniors’ beyond abuse, with seminars on ‘assessing medical care,’ ‘safe medication for seniors, as well as ‘elder abuse and bullying.’

The conference was made possible through a grant from the federal New Horizons for Seniors program, noted Serena Verboom, one of the organizers of the program hosted by the Manitoulin Seniors’ Services Providers. This was the fourth in a series of conferences being held in communities across Manitoulin.

“I am the token senior on the committee,” chuckled retired Manitowaning teacher and current municipal councillor Les Fields. A characterization quickly dispelled by her fellow committee members. “There is nothing token about Les Fields,” laughed Ms. Verboom. “She provides a lot of important insights to the committee that we would be hard pressed to do without.”

Elder abuse remains the central theme of the conference, noted Ms. Fields. “It really is the elephant in the room. Nobody wants to admit it happens in their family. Nobody wants to think it can happen to them,” she said.

But as Josée Miljours, regional elder abuse consultant with Elder Abuse Ontario pointed out in her seminar, elder abuse has “no boundaries, it can happen to anywhere, anytime, to anyone. It occurs in all cultures and faiths and four out of five cases are never reported.”

The rate of abuse in Ontario lies somewhere between four and 10 percent, with the number of those facing abuse standing conservatively at between 60,000 and 150,000. “For those who work with seniors on a daily basis, at least one out of every 10 seniors will experience some form of abuse, according to a 2009 Statistics Canada study,” said Ms. Miljours.

Elder abuse is defined as “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring in any relationship where there is an expectation of trust that causes harm or distress to an older person.” The abuser can be a spouse, child, family member, friend or paid caregiver.

Elder abuse takes many forms, including financial, physical, psychological, neglect, sexual or a denial of human or civil rights.

Ms. Miljours gave examples of each type of abuse. Financial abuse could mean forcing or tricking a senior into selling his or her property, stealing money or personal possessions, forging signatures, misusing powers of attorney, door to door sales, frauds and scams by telephone, Internet or mail, renovation frauds, identity theft or the ubiquitous ‘you have won a prize’ scams.

Some types of abuse are more subtle than others, such as children that never move out of the home and don’t pay rent. “Children assume that their parents’ money is their money too,” said Ms. Miljours. “‘It is going to come to me anyway’ is a common sentiment. ‘I don’t have to pay back loans, it will all be mine some day anyway’.”

Often these abuses depend on a parent’s reluctance to report their family member.

Examples of psychological abuse include name calling and ignoring the senior, threatening, intimidation and isolation, provoking fear, humiliation, scolding and shouting or other forms of treating an older person like a child.

The warning signs of such abuse include low self-esteem, agitation, difficulty sleeping or needing excessive sleep, waiting for the caregiver to respond to questions, being prevented from having visitors or going out, unexplained fearfulness or tearfulness.

Physical abuse includes the use of force that may result in bodily injury, physical pain or impairment. Examples include hitting, pushing, biting, rough handling, shaking, burning or the over medicating or sedating of a senior. Warning signs include unexplained and/or frequent injuries, fearfulness and anxiety around certain people and depression or passivity.

Neglect can include malnourishment, denial of medical attention or treatment, over medication or lack of medication, being left in unsafe or isolated places or inadequate hygiene. The warning signs include unpleasant odours, missing dentures, hearing aids or glasses, untreated bedsores and/or dehydration.

Sexual abuse is non-consensual sexual contact of any kind with an elderly person. That includes unwanted touching, sexual harassment and sexual assault. Warning signs include bruising, infections, the person being fearful and anxious or depression.

The denial of human or civil rights is defined as any act that denies a person’s rights as outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or other declarations.

Rights of the elderly include dignity and respect, autonomy, independence, access to information, privacy, freedom, confidentiality, safety and security and the basic requirements for life. Warning signs include difficulty visiting, calling or contacting an older person, making excuses for social isolation or reluctance to participate in decision-making.

The typical victim of elder abuse is a female over the age of 75 who is living with their abusers, is often reluctant to report the abuse, is socially isolated, under the influence of the abuser and who may have some physical impairment or mental incapacity.

The typical abuser is a family member, often a dependent of the older person for finances, may be resentful of their caregiver role, lacking in personal and community support, having alcohol and/or drug dependencies and often have a history of mental illness or emotional problems.

Another significant issue for the elderly is senior bullying, noted Ms. Miljours. That is the activity of repeated, aggressive behaviour intended to hurt another person, physically or mentally, she said. “It is characterized by an individual behaving in a certain way to gain power over another person and can include verbal harassment or threats, physical assault or intimidation and may be directed repeatedly toward particular victims, perhaps on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexuality or ability.”

Such bullying tends to take place in seniors’ communities and involves senior to senior bullying, usually in places where activities for seniors take place such as seniors’ centres, church groups, day care centres and other locations. It often involves vocal insults over board games or the pool table, dining room cliques, being inconsiderate of others when operating motorized vehicles, shunning or exclusion and controlling attitudes. “Often we see the same people who were bullies in school engaging in the same behaviour as seniors,” she said.

The victims of bullying cross all boundaries, with men and women equally being victims or the aggressor. Women tend toward passive aggressive bullying while men tend to the more direct forms. Often bullying is not a direct function of aging at all, but simply a continuation of lifelong antisocial behaviour.

“Some people don’t adjust well to aging and can become disruptive and abusive, pushing people away from group activities, social activities or meal time,” noted Ms. Miljours.

Like other forms of bullying, combating the condition among seniors often requires a proactive stance, reporting incidents, putting in place anti-bullying policies and training caregivers in how to respond. “Bullying behaviour should not be ignored,” noted Ms. Miljours. “The behaviour can often escalate.”

Among those agencies that you can turn to regarding elder abuse are police agencies, Crimestoppers, the Community Care Access Centres and particularly the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly (ACE) at 416-598-2656 or Elder Abuse Ontario at 705-525-0077. There is also a 24/7 toll free line for seniors and their families at 866-299-1011.