Spotting the Signs of Elder Abuse and What You Can Do About It
A recent, high-profile legal case brought elder abuse into the spotlight and illustrated how it’s not restricted to those providing care or close family members.
The late comic book legend, Stan Lee, who created Spider-Man, Thor and the Hulk, was in the news because of elder abuse accusations. His former manager, Keya Morgan, was charged with elder abuse in May 2019, for actions dating back to 2018. Keya is accused of taking advantage of Stan’s impaired vision, hearing and judgment to take control of his business dealings. He is charged with fraud, false imprisonment and forgery.
This story showcases the unfortunate truth that elder abuse is not confined to nursing homes (although there are a number of cases reported each year). There are different types of elder abuse and even the rich and famous can be its victims.
Shining a light on a taboo subject
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (June 15) is organized by the United Nations to raise awareness of the ways older people are ill-treated and exploited and to highlight elder abuse prevention. According to the UN, elder abuse is one of the least investigated types of violence and one of the most ignored issues.
It’s estimated that as many as 10% of older Canadians are abused in some way, and one in five Canadians believe they know someone who may be experiencing elder abuse. While elder abuse in nursing homes does happen, it could also occur in a private home or in the community.
To mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, we look at the different types of elder abuse, ways to spot the signs, elder abuse prevention methods and what to do if you or someone you know may be experiencing it.
The different types of elder abuse
Given the fragile physical and mental state of some older people, they are often unable to defend themselves from exploitation and abuse. These are the types of elder abuse that they may experience:
- Physical elder abuse – this includes causing injuries from physical actions like hitting, pushing, shaking, kicking, or restraining, as well as the harm caused by over- or under-medicating.
- Psychological elder abuse (emotional abuse) – this amounts to any acts that damage a person emotionally. This can include insults, humiliation, threats and harassment, as well as treating them with condescension, controlling, ignoring and isolating them.
- Financial elder abuse – this involves taking an older person’s money or using their property without permission. Examples of financial elder abuse include forging their signature, stealing their money, using their credit cards without permission, coercing them to change their will or sign legal documents and living with them without their permission. Financial elder abuse can also involve charging them too much for a service or convincing them to donate to a fake charity.
- Elderly neglect – this occurs when an older person relies on others for their basic care and those needs are not met. Isolated people and those with serious health conditions can be the most vulnerable to neglect. Examples include not providing them with adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical attention, personal care and social interaction. Abandonment is another type of neglect.
How you can spot the signs of elder abuse
Elder abuse prevention relies on noticing the signs of abuse, but this can be tricky because some symptoms can be similar to those of frailty or dementia. However, there are some warning signs of elder abuse that should alert you to the possibility that your friend or loved one is being abused.
Signs of physical elder abuse:
- Constant bruises, cuts or burns
- Bone fractures or sprains
- Repetitive injuries
- Change in behaviour when around a certain family member or caregiver
- Torn clothing
- A reluctance to see the doctor about injuries
Signs of psychological elder abuse (emotional abuse):
- Appearing frightened or uncommunicative
- Acting depressed or confused
- Changes in personality
- Unwilling to discuss their problems
- Sleeping badly
Signs of financial elder abuse:
- Inexplicable withdrawals from their bank account
- The disappearance of legal documents, such as home ownership and wills
- Missing bank statements
- Carrying little money
- Unpaid bills, eviction notices
- Reluctance to discuss financial discrepancies
Signs of elderly neglect:
- Their clothing is dirty and unkempt
- They are clearly not bathing or washing their hair regularly
- Skin rashes or bedsores
- Missing glasses, dentures or hearing aids
- Noticeable weight loss or dehydration
Why elder abuse is rarely reported
Elder abuse prevention is particularly challenging because many victims of abuse in Canada are often either reluctant to report it or unable to do so. They fear that their abuser will punish them if they talk, or, if they rely on them for food and shelter, that they might throw them out of their home.
Others are too proud or embarrassed to admit that they are being abused or exploited. Some are too confused to know how to report it or are unaware of their rights.
The World Health Organization believes that as few as one in 24 cases of elder abuse is reported, mostly due to fear of the abuser. We can all do our part in elder abuse prevention by being alert to the warning signs and seeking help.
How to help victims of elder abuse in Canada
If you think a friend or loved one may be the victim of abuse, it’s important that you talk to them to learn more and see if this is in fact the case. Ask them if they need help – they may not come to you on their own, but may be more willing when prompted. Try and spend more time with them so you can see how they are treated, either at their home or in their care/nursing home.
Keep an eye out for the warning signs. Ask them if they need help with their banking and look for signs of financial abuse. If they’re incapable of asking for help, you can do it on their behalf. If you suspect that they are being abused, report it.
How to report elder abuse in Canada
If you think that the person being abused is in immediate danger, you should call 911 and explain everything you know to the police. If you suspect that someone may be a victim of elder abuse in Canada, or is at risk of being abused, there are a number of resources that can help.
Below we have listed the information of organizations in each province and territory that you can contact to report your concerns. Many of them provide trained counsellors who will provide safety planning and get the police involved if necessary. Each province has a different organization and/or help line dedicated to preventing elder abuse.
Ontario: Elder Abuse Ontario
Safety Line: 1-866-299-1011
Alberta: Elder Abuse Awareness Council
Calgary Elder Abuse Resource Line: 403-705-3250
Edmonton Abuse Help Line: 780-454-8888
British Columbia: BC Centre For Elderly Advocacy and Support
Abuse and Information Line: 1-866-437-1940
Saskatchewan: The Saskatchewan SM
Information Line: 1-888-823-2211
Or Quebec Elder Abuse Help Line: 1-888-489-2287
New Brunswick: Government site with regional contacts to report elder abuse
Prince Edward Island: Local offices of Adult Protection Program
Northwest Territories: Government services for elder abuse help
Alison McAteer House: 1-866-223-7775