When a senior is in trouble

Most cases of elder abuse will go undetected or unreported.

Moira Tate finds peace as she practises yoga at a senior home in Esquimalt.

Moira Tate finds peace as she practises yoga at a senior home in Esquimalt.

Moira Tait is an intelligent and articulate 70 year old who volunteers at the Victoria Women’s Transition House, helping elderly women who are facing the challenges of abuse.

She first came to the organization as a client.

“My son was dying of cancer and I was very vulnerable,” she explained. It was during that period of time that Tait suffered a significant loss of vision, and she became desperate, wondering how she would survive.

Tait’s life took a disastrous turn when she was convinced to turn over the bulk of her life savings to renovate her daughter’s Alberta home with the promise that she would be invited to live out her years there. When the renovations were finished and paid for, her daughter reneged on the arrangement and Tait was left out on the street, without a place to live.

She had a friend with a basement suite in Victoria, and made her way here in a last ditch effort for survival.

“I can’t tell you how humiliating, how embarrassing it was to be an older woman and be in that position and to have to ask for help,” she said. “It just about killed me, and I’m one of the toughest broads I know.”

In Victoria, she found Transition House and with their help, Tait emerged from the experience as a stronger individual. She now dedicates her time to helping other women in abusive situations by speaking about her experience and raising awareness of the issue of elder abuse. She has also served on the board of the B.C. Coalition to Eliminate Abuse of Seniors.

Statistics Canada’s 2011 census figures show that Victoria has nearly 63,500 residents who are aged 65 or older. That’s approximately 18.4 per cent of the population and according to Charmaine Spencer, it’s reasonable to assume that about eight per cent of that population has or will suffer some form of elder abuse. Most of those cases will go undetected or unreported.

Spencer is a lawyer and an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University whose speciality is older adult abuse issues.

She said the cited percentage intentionally excludes the incidence of victimization by strangers.

“Investment fraud and home repair scams are crimes but they shouldn’t be lumped in with elder abuse,” Spencer said. “Those things can and do happen to everyone, and while some seniors may be more vulnerable, to focus on them as examples of elder abuse leads to fuzzy thinking on the issue.

“It’s the low hanging fruit that law enforcement understandably tends to address, since it gets reported. But it has a very different set of solutions than abuse that happens within the context of a relationship with a spouse, a son or daughter or with friends or other relatives,” she said.

Oak Bay Police Chief Constable Mark Fisher agrees. “We don’t get a lot of abuse by family members reported to us,” he said. “We know it’s probably happening, but people aren’t as quick to call police in the case of families.”

Spencer says two-thirds of the abuse will come from a family member. “Children with addictions problems can be a problem,” she said. “They may use psychological pressure and even physical threats to extract funds from their parent, and they keep coming back.” Still, seniors are often loathe to involve the police. “They want the abuse to stop, but they don’t want anyone going to jail.”

That’s one of the reasons for the underreporting of abuse, but there are others. Seniors who have been damaged by a loved one are frequently embarrassed by the situation and feel helpless and ashamed at their inability to deal with their predicament, said Spencer. In other cases they may simply be frightened.

“We have cases where they are being physically abused or neglected by a son or daughter and are afraid to come forward. They’re not feeling safe in their own home but don’t know where to turn,” said Diane de Champlain, the executive director of the Victoria Women’s Transition House. That group sees more than 100 women annually who come to them seeking shelter from abusive situations at home. “In the case of spousal abuse by a senior partner it can be abuse that’s existed for a long time.” She says the abuse cycle can be exacerbated by the retirement of a spouse.

Art Kube, president of the Council of Senior Citizen Organizations recognizes retirement as a potential trigger for increased maltreatment in the home. “All of a sudden they’re together much more and physical (harm) that’s always been there gets worse. It’s no different when you’re old, except it takes longer for the wounds to heal.”

In another twist to an already difficult problem, Spencer acknowledged that modern technology has added a new element to potential abuse.

“It’s where things get a little fuzzy. Is financial abuse by an Internet friend or lover any different from being taken advantage of by a flesh and blood person that you have a relationship with? Or is it fraud by a stranger?” said Spencer.

In an arena where direct injuries by flesh and blood assailants are difficult to identify and combat, that new, virtual, element is only adding to the dangers facing seniors.

But the situation is far from hopeless.

Adult guardianship legislation, passed in B.C. in 2000, grants far more investigative powers to appropriate authorities.

“The Vancouver Island Health Authority has the right to enter a home and investigate reports of abuse,” de Chaplain said. “As well, the Public Guardian and Trustee is a very good entry point for people who are aware of a potentially abusive relationship.”

Although, it’s important that seniors who are feeling abused or threatened tell someone about their problem and seek help, statistics say that won’t happen, so it’s vital that friends, relatives and neighbours are aware of the potential of abuse. If abuse is suspected, concerns should be reported to VIHA, the Public Guardian and Trustee, the police or to one of the other organizations in the community who deal with elder abuse issues.

One of the most remarkable of Tait’s activities arose from a coping mechanism she embraced during her own period of recovery. She discovered yoga at Transition House and now teaches the activity at various community centres and seniors’ residences. “I may not be a good mediator, but I’m a good, moving meditator,” she said with a laugh.

Should you or someone you know need help, or for more information on this topic, contact victimlinkbc.ca or call them at 1-800-563-0808. You may also contact the Vancouver Island Health Authority at viha.ca or by calling 250-370-8323.

Watch for these signs

Changes in behaviour, such as withdrawing from activities they once enjoyed, especially where that isolation seems to be at the insistence of a spouse or other relation.

Depression, or signs of fear, anxiety or feeling uncomfortable in the presence of a relative or friend. An unwillingness to speak in the company of that individual.

Some seniors will try to explain their situation using indirect communication. Take the time to listen and do not disregard their concerns. Ask questions.

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