The United Nations (UN) has named June 15 as 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 at your bank there is an older woman who frequently comes in to get out cash and is always with her nephew yet her clothing is not in good shape. Maybe you have noticed that a senior at the local retirement residence seems very nervous, has withdrawn from talking to anyone, and has bruises on their face and hands.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 were 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 elder care.
Elder Abuse can involve neglect of basic physical care, as well as financial, physical, sexual, or emotional/psychological abuse. The key to prevention of 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 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, do not recognize that what they or others are experiencing is elder abuse, fear the consequences of reporting particularly if it involves family members or they have been threatened harm if they disclose, or may not know what options are available for reporting, support or alternate caregiving.
What Can an Older Adult do if Abused?
- Know that you have the right to be protected, that abuse is never acceptable, and someone is using power to take advantage of them so you have the right to get help to make it stop
- Know the signs of Elder Abuse, including that abuse is harmful and reduces feelings of safety and self-confidence, the four types of Elder Abuse and they can occur together (neglect, physical/sexual, financial and emotional/psychological), and are possible in any setting
- Conquer the fear to report by recognizing it is not the senior’s fault and so shame or embarrassment is not necessary, support is available, and focus on the outcome of getting protection from further harm
- Understand that there are options to getting help, so tell a trusted person or call a seniors’ help line
What to Know About Reporting
The reporting of 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 an elder victim of 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 first you may want to offer support and encouragement directly to the older adult. Reassure the person that they will receive support and they are cared about, and support them in reaching out for help. If you or the senior does report the abuse, consider if possible staying in touch with them through this process when they will feel vulnerable and likely fearful of consequences and possibly 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 can be helpful to provide your name so the police have access to your information in the following investigation and also 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 having 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 .