Elder abuse is harm done to persons over the age of 65, by a person in a position of trust, by doing or not doing something. Because the population of many countries is aging, it is expected that this crime will grow in incidence.

American studies suggest that between 5% and 10% of elders suffer some type of abuse.

A Canada-wide study suggests that instances of elder abuse breaks down as follows:

  • Financial abuse is the most common form of elder abuse reported in 40% of cases. They are a favourite target of cons or extortionists but also of family members.
  • Mental cruelty is the next most common form of elder abuse at 38% and includes humiliation, harassment, intimidation and social isolation.
  • Physical abuse is reported in 23% of the cases. This includes rough handling or restricting the movement of elders.1

Another study (Manitoba) suggested that there was 25 cases of "material abuse" per 1,000 elders compared to 14 suffering  from psychological abuse and 5/1,000 having to deal with physical abuse.2

Roger Police

A common misconception about elder abuse is that is limited mainly to institutions where elderly residents are subjected to impatient treatment from staff. In fact, the typical abuser is a member of the elder's family, usually the spouse (58% in one study) or the children of the victim (24%), or a dependent of the victim. Unrelated caregivers are responsible for less than a quarter of elder abuse cases.

Another misconception is that the victim is usually handicapped in some way. Again, this is not the case. Abused elders are no more, no less functionally disabled than those elders who are not abused.

It is also interesting to note that alcohol is the biggest single common denominator in cases of elder abuse, a factor in 45% of reported elder abuse cases. As to gender: the victim of elder abuse was female in about two-thirds of the cases.

Too many citizens conjure negative impressions of the elderly: "no longer physically attractive", "unproductive", "overuse health care funds", "overpopulate hospitals" and an "inconvenience". 

Older man sleeping

This negative attitude is quite prevalent and seriously obstructs a generalized appreciation of the problem of elder abuse within society at large. Most elders have toiled their entire lives, raised families enduring conditions worse than their modern counterparts, fought in world wars and yet still live in their own homes, are mentally sound and active members of their communities, although slower and retired from their place of regular salaried employment.

Elders don't always report abuse because:

  • They fear a backlash from the abuser;
  • They fear losing contact with a family member;
  • The cannot overcome the guilt they would feel if their child or spouse was reported for elder abuse or fear the shame that would go with the disclosure that their own child is an abuser;
  • They are afraid that it could lead to their own departure from a family home into a nursing home; and
  • They are unaware that the police can or care to intervene; that the "problem" is not important enough.

You can watch for elder abuse by trying to spot the following traits of abused elders:

  • Poor hygiene or bed sores;
  • Torn or dirty clothing;
  • Often left alone or isolated;
  • Untreated and unexplained bruises or injuries;
  • Little affection between the elder and the caregiver; and
  • Appearances of a stressful living environment and signs of unusual anxiety or fear.

Elder abuse can be prevented or intercepted. Here are some actions you can take to prevent elder abuse:

  • Elder abuse is a crime, it should be reported and stopped. Putting an end to the abuse is the most important thing of all. The police will help. What happens in another's home is everybody's business when it involves elder abuse.
  • Most instances of elder abuse occur in families which have an abnormal amount of stress. Reducing the stress within families caring for an elderly person is a good way to prevent elder abuse.
  • People have to be aware that elder abuse is a problem and taught to understand that the treatment that they reserve for the elderly person under their care is unacceptable and may be criminal. Elders have to be made aware that this type of conduct on their person is criminal and unacceptable and could result in the laying of criminal charges against the abuser. Many abused elders are afraid that reporting their family member would ruin that person's life; they should be reassured that this is not the case.
  • Listen and talk with elders. If you have any suspicions, broach the subject of elder abuse with them and give them references to law enforcement or social service resources in your community. Abused elders are often isolated from the community and your contact with them alleviates this condition.
  • There are laws in many jurisdictions which make it mandatory to report elder abuse. Many nursing homes have such policies adding that no employee can lose their job because they reported a case of elder abuse.

REFERENCES:

  • Health Canada, Elder Abuse, 1993, Cat. #H72-22/6-1993E
  • Manitoba Law Reform Commission, 1999, Report #103, Adult Protection and Elder Abuse (note 2).
  • Shell, Donna, Protection of the Elderly: A Study of Elder Abuse (1982) 26 (note 1).