Time to speak up about elder abuse

Chilliwack and Fraser Valley groups working together to create discussions on elder abuse

An elderly woman shows up at a casino.

She doesn’t gamble, and leaves after several hours. This carries on for days, and then weeks. When someone decides to approach her and starts asking questions, it’s clear she’s a victim of elder abuse.

Karen Bunner, with the BC Association of Community Response Network (BCCRN), says that person who spoke with the woman changed her life.

“People that were regulars noticed this lady, and they were concerned about her,” Bunner says. “One went and actually talked with her, and the elderly lady revealed that things were going missing in her house… she didn’t feel safe in her house.”

It turned out that some abusive family members had moved in, were stealing from her and making her feel unsafe. The casino had become her safe haven. Eventually, the abuse was properly dealt with and the woman gained control of her home and her finances once again.

Elder abuse is more common than some may think, Bunner says. The Ministry of Health estimates as many as 10 per cent of seniors will experience some form of abuse. To put that into context, about 25 per cent of Chilliwack’s population is over 65 years old.

Bunner says it’s going to take more communication and understanding to stop the abuse, prevent it, and ultimately protect seniors. She calls the prevalence of abuse “staggering.”

“It’s everyone’s business, we want to make our community safe,” Bunner says. “This is not just about the person being abused but also the abuser; they need help too. They may not even know their behaviour can be considered abuse.”

The BCCRN is not a frontline response service, but they are an important piece of the puzzle. As a regional mentor for Fraser Valley East, Bunner is a support for the networks that are in the community. Her work stretches from Mission and Abbotsford to Chilliwack, Agassiz and Hope.

“We bring people around the table,” she says, using a “collaborative approach” with people who are interested in elder abuse. That includes Victim Services, the Seniors Resource Society, the Alzheimer Society, Fraser Health, and even individuals. They run two separate workshops, It’s Not Right and Gatekeepers.

While their job at the Chilliwack CRN is not to “fix the problem” they provide the support to those who do.

Elder abuse includes neglect and even self-neglect. And there are several signs of abuse that neighbours, friends, family members and community members can watch for.

Some of the signs are visual.

“If someone is normally clean and has a well-kept appearance is suddenly unkept, or unshaved, or even inappropriately dressed for the weather,” Bunner says, it is worth investigating. Conditions of the home deteriorating are also a sign something could be going on.

“You might notice the lady across the street, conditions of her home gradually decreasing, in poor repair and newspapers lying around, little changes like that,” she says. Also watch for and inquire about frequent injuries, declining health, and a decrease in socialization.

For financial abuse, there could be sudden changes in wills, or unusual bank withdrawals. A form of psychological abuse could be to refuse to take an elderly relative to church any more, Bunner adds. And for a senior who has gone to church all their life, that can be devastating.

Abuse, neglect and self-neglect can be embarrassing for a senior, or even something they just come to accept. It can be perpetrated by a family member, an adult child or even a grandchild.

Helen Long of the Seniors Peer Counselling office says they’ve even heard of seniors being swept up by distant family and taken to other provinces.

“It’s one aspect of elder abuse that we’ve come across that’s quite troubling,” she says. They’ve heard about at least three instances in Chilliwack. But there is little anyone can do once the senior and their “elderknapper” are across provincial lines.

The Seniors Peer Counselling office matches up seniors with trained peers who meet regularly with their clients. They may take them for walks, visit for coffee, run errands with them, or chat over the phone. Often, they become friends.

And building those friendships for seniors is a preventative when it comes to elder abuse. When a senior has someone they trust they can talk to, or someone who would notice small changes, the chances of stopping abuse in its infancy is possible.

They have about 50 volunteers and regularly train others, in their downtown Chilliwack office.

“It stops people from being lonely,” Long says. “They realize there is somebody coming to see them. There are people out there who are looking for lonely people, to start taking money and things from them.”

And sometimes abuse is as result of caregiver stress, a case where both people could use an intervention. Those are the cases where the abuser may not even realize the weight of their actions.

“I think often there’s a natural resistance on the part of the caregiver to accept help,” Bunner says. “You may try to be handling all of this on your own, and that can be overwhelming and can lead to depression and physical problems on the part of the caregiver.

“The caregiver role is really difficult,” she says. “There can be an increase in drinking, or they may become impatient and irritable, or be quite frustrated if there’s no support system to provide relief.”

In cases like that, she says, respite should be made available to give the caregiver a break and keep the relationship healthy.

She suggests talking to the senior involved if possible, and to contact Fraser Health if required. They will follow up every report of elder abuse.

The number is 1-877-REACT-08 (1-877-732-2808) and email their is react@fraserhealth.ca.