Canadians think elder abuse much more common than experts do: survey

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on June 16th, 2011. To go to the Ottawa Citizen website please click here

OTTAWA — Canadians are becoming more aware of elder abuse and overwhelmingly believe family members are responsible for most of it. They also think nearly four in 10 seniors have experienced abuse — far more than experts think is the case.

The findings are from a survey of 3,012 Canadians conducted for Justice Canada by EKOS late last year. It was done in part to assess the impact of a $13-million federal initiative designed to increase societal awareness of elder abuse.

The results suggest the initiative, which ran from April 1, 2008, to March 31, 2011, has had an impact. More than nine in 10 of those surveyed have heard the term “elder abuse,” up 11 percentage points from February 2009.

Jean-Guy Soulière, chair of the National Seniors Council, a government advisory body, agreed there has been a “significant increase” in public awareness of the issue. Some police services, Ottawa’s among them, have established sections dealing with elder abuse, he said.

Even so, “the council still thinks elder abuse is a major, major issue,” Soulière said. For seniors, “it’s one of the top issues.”

Based on demographics alone, elder abuse is a growing problem. There are now about 4.2 million Canadians age 65 and older, but that number is expected to rise to nine million over the next 25 years.

The survey found that three-quarters of Canadians think a family member other than a spouse is most likely to be responsible for elder abuse, compared to 58 per cent in 2009. Nearly half name paid caregivers in institutions while barely one in 10 cites strangers. That’s in line with police-reported data, which say seniors are most likely to be victimized by someone they know.

Officially, it’s estimated that between four and 10 per cent of seniors in Canada experience some form of abuse. But survey respondents put the rate of elder abuse at 38 per cent on average. Nearly all believe that most of the abuse experienced by older adults goes undetected.

Despite this, Canadians think spousal and child abuse are both far more prevalent than elder abuse, the survey says. Forty-two per cent of respondents name spousal abuse as the most prevalent form of family violence, followed by child abuse at 30 per cent. Just 15 per cent name elder abuse.

According to the survey, more than 40 per cent of Canadians think neglect is the most common type of elder abuse, while about one-in-four name psychological or emotional abuse and financial abuse. Just six per cent think physical abuse of seniors is most common.

In fact, financial abuse is the mostly commonly reported type of elder abuse.

Canadians are also increasingly likely to believe that many types of elder abuse are criminal offences.

Asked what governments should do, about eight in 10 endorse raising awareness among seniors about their right to live safely and among the general public about elder abuse and how to recognize it.