Elder abuse coming out of the closet
November 12, 2008
“On the topic of elder abuse, society is back where we were with woman abuse in the 1970s,” says Lisa Manuel, whose Family Service Toronto team provides counselling to seniors and their caregivers.
“Elder abuse is such a hidden problem, such a sensitive issue,” but more seniors are ready to bring it out of the closet, she says.
Earlier this fall, the Family Service Toronto opened Pat’s Place, a bachelor apartment to act as a safe haven for abused elders.
But Ontario “hasn’t developed the capacity to work with older abused people,” Manuel says. “Family Service Toronto is the only agency that has a safe haven for seniors. We’ve got the expertise and we collaborate with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly (legal aid clinic). They will call us and make referrals to assist their clients.”
A woman may have been abused by her husband; when he dies, his adult children may continue perpetrating the abuse. “Maybe they were abused too, and blame the mother. The mother feels guilty. We’re often dealing with generational trauma.”
Admitting to being a victim is hard. “People are ashamed they’ve `let’ it happen. They think they’re to blame.”
Experts estimate that at least 10 per cent of seniors are abused. “What we’re seeing is that, year over year, more elders are identifying that, `this isn’t right,’ and they’re reaching out for help.”
Primarily, Manuel’s team deals with abuse perpetrated by adult children on their parents. The abuse can be physical, psychological, emotional, medical, financial or plain neglect.
“Sometimes abused older women will say, `I gave birth to him, I did something wrong, I’m to blame, it’s my fault, I’m the parent, I have to sacrifice myself.’ The abusive adult child will think, in terms of financial abuse, `You’re going to die anyway, I need the money now, I’m going to take it.’”
Once the money is gone, it’s gone, Manuel says. “We have to catch the adult child selling the house out from under the older parent in order to get anything back.”
Abuse of older adults was first identified by doctors in England in the 1970s, when an old woman was brought to a hospital with signs of physical abuse. Awareness spread of “granny bashing,” and now, in the U.S., professionals are required to report signs of abuse – but not in Ontario. “Why is that?” Manuel asked. “There is an automatic requirement to report the abuse of children in Ontario, but not the abuse of older adults?”
The answer: Ageism is like racism and sexism; when it’s all-pervasive, it results in a particular category of people being treated differently.
“It’s insidious. Older people get a different reaction from society. If a 72-year-old is being abused, the system will question, `Is she reliable? Is she capable of making decisions?’ Ageism undermines older people.”
In some cases, adult children who have lost their jobs move back home with parents, expecting them to die, but when the parents live on, they may be abused.
“Victims are mostly mothers, but some fathers get abused,” Manuel says.
Why doesn’t the abused older parent do something?
Manuel understands the dynamics all too well: She also runs the violence against women team, and she sees similar issues in elder abuse: “The victim is usually dependent on the abuser, and can’t imagine being free of the situation in which they’re trapped.” Just as an abused woman can’t imagine being liberated from an abusive husband, “it’s hard for a parent to sever a relationship with an adult child. It’s difficult for them to think about what to do while embedded in the situation.”
Hence the creation of Pat’s Place, which opened in September, to give elderly victims a place to get emotional and physical distance from the problem, to get some sleep, some food, and to experience what it’s like to be outside the abusive relationship. They can stay for up to 60 days, rent-free.
Pat’s Place is modelled on a similar project in Edmonton, where the city provides seven apartment units for abused elders in a larger building.
In a year, Manuel’s elder abuse team – up to six people – deals with 100 cases. They cover all of Toronto. The socio-economic status of victimized elders is “hugely variable. It happens in all walks of life. Some are on full pensions and lose all their money; cheques will be diverted to the point that the elder can lose their home. We’ve had to phone pension offices to report fraud, pension cheques being signed fraudulently.”
If the elder abuse team has reason to believe an older adult is at risk of immediate harm, they can report the case to Ontario’s Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee. “If we believe the older adult is not able to take care of themselves, an investigation will be launched.”
If seniors want to continue the relationship with an abusive or domineering child, they do. “We see that as their decision.”
If you need help, call 416-595-9618.