The United Nations (UN) has named June 15th World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD), building on the Plan of Action signed by all member countries in 2002.
Perhaps you have noticed a senior gentleman on your street who sits out on the front porch day after day, and you have felt a twinge of concern that no matter what the weather he never has more than slippers on his feet and doesn’t wear a jacket. Or maybe there is an older woman at your bank who frequently comes in to take out cash and is always with her nephew, yet her clothing is not in good shape. Maybe you have noticed a senior at a local retirement residence who seems very nervous, has withdrawn from talking to anyone, and has bruises on their face and hands. Do you know that these three situations have indicators of possible elder abuse?
Why do we need to increase awareness of elder abuse? Since abuse of elders happens across nations and cultures in many forms and varied settings, we need awareness to foster understanding and prevention efforts. In North America, the estimate is that 2-10% of elders experience abuse or neglect each year.
Our elderly population is vulnerable to exploitation by strangers, friends, or even family – 35% of solved victimizations against elders are by family members (statistic from National Victims of Crime Awareness Week). These crimes have wider impacts than just the victim and the perpetrator since entire families are impacted and resulting emotions of guilt, blame, and shame can lead to ongoing problems for family dynamics and eldercare.
Elder abuse can involve neglect of basic physical care, as well as financial, physical, sexual, or emotional/psychological abuse. The key to preventing elder abuse is to spread awareness and knowledge of the signs of abuse and the steps for reporting incidents.
Warning Signs of Abuse
By knowing the following warning signs provided by Elder Abuse Ontario, whatever your role is in society or family, you can make an important contribution to the awareness and prevention of elder abuse.
- Inadequate medical/health assistance
- Poor nutritional status
- Withholding food or liquids
- Inadequate or inappropriate use of medication
- Sudden inability to pay bills
- Changes in appearance, such as clothing in poor condition
- Banking happens in the presence of someone who may be receiving the money
- Unexplained or sudden withdrawal of money from accounts
- Misuse of a Power of Attorney
- Skin showing signs of dehydration, lacerations, or burns
- Bruising in unusual areas such as chest, abdomen, face, or extremities
- Unexplained fractures or accidents
- Unexplained sexually transmitted diseases or genital infections
- Inappropriate touching
- Making sexual remarks or suggestions to another person
- Non-consensual sexual contact of any kind
- Treating the senior like a child
- Signs of depression, fear, anxiety, or withdrawal
- Changes in behaviour when around a caregiver or family member
- Limiting or not allowing the senior to use the phone or socialize with others
Why Don’t Seniors Report Elder Abuse?
Older adults may not understand they are protected under Human Rights legislation, or that what they are experiencing is elder abuse. They may fear the consequences of reporting particularly if it involves family members, or they have been threatened harm if they disclose. They also may not know what options are available for reporting, support, or alternate caregiving.
What Can an Older Adult Do?
- Know that they have the right to be protected, that abuse is never acceptable, and someone is using power to take advantage of them so they have the right to get help to make it stop
- Know the signs of Elder Abuse, including the fact that it reduces feelings of safety and self-confidence. An older adult should also know the four types of Elder Abuse and that they can occur together and in any setting: neglect, physical/sexual, financial and emotional/psychological
- Conquer the fear of reporting abuse by recognizing it is not their fault and shame or embarrassment are not necessary
- Understand that there are options for getting help, so tell a trusted person or call a seniors’ helpline
What to Know About Reporting
Reporting elder abuse is legally mandatory when a senior resides in long-term or retirement facility and elder abuse is suspected. This obligation applies to everyone except the residents, even if the information is considered confidential. Mandatory reporting to police also applies to agencies supporting older adults who have developmental disabilities. If a victim of elder abuse lives in their own home or in a residential setting, the law does not require reporting by anyone unless it is part of employment duties or professional ethics.
Everyone has the responsibility to be helpful, and you may want to offer support and encouragement directly to the older adult if they report abuse. Reassure the person that they will receive support, that you care about them, and support them in reaching out for help. If you or the senior does report the abuse, consider staying in touch with them through this process because they will likely feel vulnerable and fearful of the consequences or possible changes in caregiving.
If you are concerned that a senior is at immediate risk of any form of abuse, you should call your local police department or 911. You may choose to make an anonymous report, although it is often helpful to provide your name so the police have access to your information in the investigation. You can also help out as they determine what support services they can provide to the elder.
Remember, older persons have the right to live with a sense of safety and have their physical and emotional needs met. If you or someone you know is experiencing elder abuse, make that call to start the process of getting the support they deserve to be able to live with dignity and without fear. Perhaps you will be having a conversation with the gentleman on the porch, talking to a bank teller about the woman who comes in with her family member, or reporting the man with bruises on his face to your local retirement home regulatory organization. Knowledge of the signs of elder abuse and the responsibility for all of us to care and take action, is what will lead to prevention.
Resources, videos, brochures and toolkits for celebrating World Elder Abuse Awareness Day with all ages and at all levels of community involvement are available at www.weaadmanitoba.ca .
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