Surf the web looking for information on elder abuse and you will find so many pamphlets, hotlines and information sites on elder abuse it will make your head spin. The only problem is that most of these resources all say the same thing – and they don’t say much. Unfortunately, the outlook is much bleaker for a senior who is in an abusive situation – especially if that person happens to have mobility or health challenges. The situation is even bleaker if the person has any trace of dementia or impairment.
What follows is a real example that illustrates how the system can fail victims of elder abuse in ways it would never fail other victims. A woman living in a care facility had told a staff member that earlier that day, she was alone with a male resident who had groped her genital area. The care facility did not call initially contact investigators, who would have been qualified to work cases of elder abuse (specially designated by an agency like Adult Protective Services). They determined it was a case of “he said, she said” and decided to give both residents a psychological evaluation. When the evaluations revealed that the male resident had no mental impairment and that the woman had mild dementia, not only were her accusations disregarded but she was also branded a liar by the care staff. Afterwards, the facility asked an investigator to interview the woman (in order to validate its actions, no doubt) but it was too late because the damage had been done and some of the most salient facts had now been lost. Given that the woman had no children or living relatives to advocate for her, she was never granted a transfer.
Cases of abuse later in life present special sets of circumstances that collude to make each scenario extremely complex. The victim might have health or mental impairment issues that make it extremely difficult to build a case, remove them from the situation or get the facts. They can also be more emotionally and physically fragile and therefore the abuse takes a greater toll on their health. They may require more assistance to break their isolation and live more safely and in order to do this; they need economic assistance, safe housing and help accessing a variety of services. Unlike other victims like single mothers, they are unlikely to be eligible for social services such as temporary assistance.
For all of these reasons, such cases require unique collaboration and expertise among community agencies, legal and police services as well as health services staff. Experts agree that most elder abuse cases are too complex for professionals from any one system to handle alone. Training and cross training can help professionals understand the dynamics of abusive relationships and the interventions available to older victims.
From the legal perspective, prosecutors have a hard time securing longer sentences because there is no specific Canadian Criminal Code provision that targets elder abuse. That may change soon; provided the Government honours the election promise made to CARP members.