Elderly at greater risk of abuse during holiday season, advocates warn

This article was published on December 23, 2014 in Ottawa Citizen. Click here to read this article and more similar content.

Elder abuse happens around the city every day, but holidays present a greater risk when seniors are more apt to find themselves in situations with whose are most likely to victimize them: Family and friends.

“One time I got a call from the director of a care from a nursing home,” said Staff Sgt. Stephanie Burns of the Ottawa Police Service’s elder abuse unit. The caller was concerned that an elderly woman’s children were emptying her bank account without her knowledge.

“She goes into town once every two weeks to get her hair done and she didn’t have enough money in her little kitty to get her hair done,” said Burns.

“I wanted to run down there and put money in there because she doesn’t know.”

Fraud is one of the most common forms of elder abuse. In this woman’s case, Burn said, the children had their mother’s power of attorney and took full advantage of that.

Janet Gray of CARP Ottawa, the national capital chapter of a Canada-wide advocacy group for seniors, warns seniors to avoid signing anything over holiday dinners and gatherings unless it has been reviewed by someone they trust.

“A lot of elder abuse happens within families. The holidays exacerbate all the stuff that may happen year round. But the holidays may bring people to social situations where it may happen more because they’re physically there,” Gray said.

Gray, who works for a national advocacy group for seniors, said the holidays can make people feel more isolated and seniors might be more inclined to open their door to a stranger just to have someone to speak to.

Scam artists and criminals might take advantage of seniors, but family members and friends are more of a threat.

In 2010, police reported 2,800 seniors aged 65 years and older were the victims of family violence, according to Statistics Canada.

“If you see something, you should report it because sometimes the elderly person can’t report it for themselves,” Burns said.

That is why Ottawa police set up a new phone line in December. Burns said her investigators were getting bogged down by phone calls from people calling for information about how to help seniors facing financial abuse or how to assess dementia.

The crisis line will connect callers with a social worker who can help them to determine where they can find appropriate community services or have them speak with an investigator if it’s a criminal matter.

“A lot of the time when it’s financial abuse of seniors it’s family, it’s siblings, it’s stepchildren. It’s a tricky line to walk sometimes for people and you want to make sure they’re doing the right thing,” Burns said.

One of the community services is offered by the Ontario Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse. Manon Thompson is responsible for Eastern Ontario and teaches people in communities how to recognize mistreatment of seniors.

“A lot of times people don’t know where to call,” Thompson said. “It’s called a hidden crime. The only time everyone gets involved is if something really bad happens, like death. But by then it’s too late.”

When people call Thompson for help, she co-ordinates with a community centre in Nepean, Rideau and Osgoode or in Orléans to set up interventions within the city to make sure the older adult receives the appropriate services and, if necessary, is provided with an

emergency bed until a safe environment can be found.

The annual visit with family and friends for Christmas is a good opportunity for family to check whether elders are  being treated with care and respect. Thompson said that if there are changes to an elder’s weight, cleanliness or behaviour, there is cause for concern.

As the Baby Boom generation ages, the City of Ottawa expects the older adult population to more than double over the next 20 years, and Burns said she expects the police elder abuse unit will get a lot busier.

Burns encourages people to call if they have concerns. Police will be able to identify cases of abuse and, by linking reports, help to stop further victimization.

“It’s a small piece of a puzzle that might eventually make a picture,” Burns said.

Janet Gray of CARP Ottawa offers some ways for seniors to protect themselves over the holidays:

  • Have an exit strategy to remove yourself from the situation. Tell someone you trust about your holiday plans. Let them know when you go to a family dinner and for how long you plan to stay.
  • Don’t sign anything without first having it reviewed.
  • Don’t allow people into your home without having received advance notice of their visit.
  • Use the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (ONPEA) as a resource or call the Ottawa Police Elder Abuse consultation phone line call 613-236-1222, extension 2400.