CCCA Seniors Committee: Elder abuse and family violence

Panelists Dr. Teresa Tam, Erin Leigh, and Denise Hebert. Photo: Stephen Thirlwall

Panelists Dr. Teresa Tam, Erin Leigh, and Denise Hebert. Photo: Stephen Thirlwall

by Stephen Thirlwall

On March 10, a program was held by Crime Prevention Ottawa and collaborating social organizations on the topic of family violence and how community workers can best respond.

Several means have been identified to address this serious issue: (1) universal awareness and education, (2) appropriate support for victims, (3) strong evidence-based practices, (4) holding abusers accountable, and (5) partnerships amongst various organizations and individuals in the field.

Violence is not just defined by physical and sexual assault, but also verbal and emotional/psychological torment, discrimination, and theft and financial abuse. As explained by panelist Denise Hébert, abuse is also caused by purposely withholding food or other necessities from someone, forced isolation from others or neglect.

Violent abuse leads to fear, shame, denial, pain and confusion for many victims, and death for some. Impacts are heightened when the abuser is a family member or family friend. Socially, there is a huge collective loss of productivity through inability to work, soaring health costs and other social ills, such as unwanted pregnancies, spread of venereal disease, substance abuse, poverty, mental illness, chronic health conditions and suicide.

Many victims live with post-traumatic stress and emotional imbalance, low self-esteem, memory loss and poor performance. The longer the abuse continues, the greater the impact will be. Abuse can also pass from generation to generation.

It is very important that knowledge of abuse comes to light; otherwise, it goes untreated. At the same time, protection is needed for those who report cases of abuse, and appropriate punishment for offenders must follow. While reports of abuse have increased, it is thought that only about one-third of seniors’ cases are reported.

Panelist Conny Menger spoke to the sub-issue of elder abuse. She stated that most people (70%) know someone who has experienced elder abuse, but they feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to do. There is a continuum of responders from “avoiders” of the situation to “solvers,” who help to bring some positive resolution. Where do you fall?

Statistics from Public Health in Canada 2016: A Focus on Family Violence in Canada state that almost nine million Canadians said they had experienced abuse before the age of 15.

Almost 760,000 Canadians said they had experienced unhealthy spousal conflict, abuse or violence in the previous five years, and more than 766,000 older Canadians said they had experienced abuse or neglect in the previous year.

Menger presented several main factors contributing to elder abuse: the health and functional ability of seniors, discrimination based on ageism, inequality within society, and social isolation and neglect. These are compounded when elderly persons also fall within other high-risk groups (women—particularly indigenous women—the poor, the disabled and the LGBTQ community. Children are also a disadvantaged group).

Our society has marginalized seniors and continually raises ageist prejudices against them. Seniors are portrayed as nonfunctional, non-contributors and a drain on our society and economy who should be shunted aside. This picture is not true, especially if you look at the huge amount of volunteerism, participation in community affairs and support of young families provided by seniors.

Inequality at all ages, not just in terms of jobs and pay, but in all aspects of society, gives permission to those who feel more equal to act badly towards those considered less equal. And perpetrators often get away without punishment. This is no longer tolerable if we are to have a healthy society.

With the disintegration of many families, weakening of close extended-family ties and the deaths of spouses and friends, it is easy for seniors to become neglected by their offspring and isolated from any social support network.

Some approaches have been identified for how social workers and government agencies of various sorts should deal with elders: (1) show respect to elders and their values. They have the right to make their own decisions and to be protected should they reach a state of not being able to mentally make these decisions; (2) seek their consent and permission before taking actions that impact them; and (3) do not act towards them with ageist prejudices.

Panelist Dr. Teresa Tam stated that violence is a global priority. At least 35 percent (i.e., billions) of the world’s population experience violence within their lives. Canada is not immune.

On average, in Canada, 172 homicides are committed annually by a family member. Based on police data, females experience twice as much and more severe abuse than men. Every four days in Canada, a woman is killed through family violence. But, panelist Erin Leigh explains, “Violence against women is not just a woman’s issue.” Everyone has a responsibility to help eradicate it.

While rates of reported abuse in Ottawa are lower than in all other urban areas in Canada, in our neighbouring Gatineau rates are very high.

The causes of family violence are complex and solutions need to be holistic. Everyone can play a part in making change, particularly, by altering our attitudes and behaviours to be more patient, accepting and loving towards elders of the community and victims of violence.

Police, health and social workers, and those in the justice system need to be trained in trauma-informed practices and compassion when dealing with victims.

To resist family violence in general, we require stronger families, healthier personal relationships, education and skill building, self-defense abilities, special programs for youth and adults that keep them active and connected, and healthy culture-based programs to deal with diversity.

As Dr. Tam said, “Small positive actions matter.” Family members, friends, neighbours and agencies can all act. To address the root problems and not just the symptoms, we must all work together.