Life

The Hidden Horror

Many elderly are abused by the people they trust the most— their own kids

Susan Oh July 19 1999
Life

The Hidden Horror

Many elderly are abused by the people they trust the most— their own kids

Susan Oh July 19 1999

The Hidden Horror

Many elderly are abused by the people they trust the most— their own kids

Life

Susan Oh

Despite everything, Janet* still remembers the good things about her son, Brian. The 69-year-old retired Alberta day-care worker says Brian, an only child, was devoted to her husband, a former oil company technician who suffers from Parkinsons disease. “My son always took great care of his dad,” she says, but then added: “It was always me he picked on.” “Picked on” hardly describes the pain and suffering Brian inflicted if Janet refused his demands for money or said anything he didn’t like. “He would pin me up against the wall and grab my face or my neck, and squeeze until I’d repeat whatever he wanted me to,” she says, her voice trembling.

The worst attacks occurred when her son, in his 30s, moved back to his parents’ home after he lost his job last year. Janet says she knew she ought to have called the police, but

*All names of victims and their family members have been changed.

after each incident, she succumbed to Brian’s appeasements, believing his contrition was real. But instead, the abuse grew worse, both in ferocity and frequency. The last straw for Janet came last January when, for the first time, she says, Brian attacked his partially paralyzed father, knocking him from his walker, pinning him to the ground and repeatedly spitting and screaming into the 70-year-old man’s face. Janet fled to a neighbour’s house and called authorities. “I lived in terror for years,” she says, her voice breaking, “and I became increasingly fearful for my life.”

Tragically, Janet’s story is not uncommon. According to Elizabeth Podnieks, chairwoman of the board for the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, seven to 10 per cent of Canada’s 3.7 million seniors experience some form of emotional, physical and financial abuse, usually committed by the victims’ children and grandchildren. But the mistreatment is rarely reported and officially the percentage of those abused is four per cent. Battered parents are often too ashamed or afraid

to speak out, and most times police and prosecutors are reluctant to take on what many view as family disputes. As well, the abuse can be difficult to detect. “Unless you’re looking for it, you wont find it,” says Podnieks, who was awarded the Order of Canada this year for her groundbreaking 1991 study of elder abuse. “And people who don’t want to see it, won’t.” Even seniors who speak out are often unable to convince authorities of their plight. Fred, a 78-year-old retired janitor from New Brunswick, claims his youngest son “stole” his house by coercing him to add the son and daughter-in-law’s names to the deed. Fred, who is illiterate, does not remember signing the document and chokes up with tears recalling the house he built with his brothers 51 years ago. He says his son and daughter-in-law, who had been living with him, wanted a newer house and had the old structure razed when Fred was hospitalized after a mini-stroke last December. “My house, my barn, my life: they tore it all down,” he says, crying. “I just want to go home and I can’t.”

Fred now lives with one of his daughters and has all but given up reclaiming his property. Because it is not a criminal case, he does not qualify for legal aid and, with the deed now in his son’s name, the onus is on the father to prove he did not willingly sign over the property. Fred says he has already spent $ 1,200—mostly borrowed—on lawyer’s fees, and cannot afford the $3,000 he says it will take to go further. “There’s nothing more I can do,” he says.

Donald Poirier, a University of Moncton law professor who specializes in elder abuse legislation, says police have the legal backing to deal with physical and financial mistreatment of the elderly, even if they do not use it. “The legisla-

tion is in place,” he says. “It’s the application that is the problem.” Rules governing social service agencies vary according to province. The Atlantic provinces, which modelled their legislation after laws for the prevention of child abuse, give social workers the broadest scope to intervene directly to protect seniors. The remaining provinces also allow for intervention, but when they get to court, cases are governed by general laws, or laws pertaining to guardianship rather than to elder abuse.

According to Poirier, most financial impropriety, which accounts for about 60 per cent of documented elder-abuse cases, goes unchallenged. He says prosecutors are often unwilling to pursue cases, in part because “seniors are generally regarded as being less than credible witnesses.” His con-

tention is supported by The Uniform Crime Reporting II Survey, which tracks all police reports in Canada. Experts estimate that 13,500 seniors in Canada have experienced financial abuse through the illegal use of power of attorney. But in the past three years, only five charges were laid for abuse of power of attorney and of those, all were later withdrawn or stayed. “That so few charges were laid is troubling,” says Charmaine Spencer, a research associate of Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Centre who is studying the social and economic cost of abuse. “It’s unjust that seniors are carrying the full burden of fighting financial abuse on their own.”

Mark Fachs, a professor of geriatric medicine at the Cornell University Medical College in New York, conducted a 14-year study of seniors and says his findings show that abuse victims experience more serious health problems and shorter life expectancies than those who are not abused. Victims agree. Ontario resident Mary, 88, blames her recent heart attack on the turmoil of dealing with her 52-year-old son. She says he convinced her to move out of a seniors’ apartment complex and to buy a $250,000 bungalow for them to share. He then abandoned her, she says, after coercing her to sign a blank cheque. The former radio-show singer also claims he emptied their joint account for emergency funds, and charged his every purchase, including the Mother’s Day cards she still keeps, to her account. “He drove off in the car he bought with my money,” says Mary, who is now legally blind and moves with a walker, “and left me alone in this house.”

Despite victim reluctance, more cases of abuse are being reported. For instance, residents of traditionally closed aboriginal communities in the Northwest Territories are using a 1-800 helpline and workshops, says Esther Braden, an advocate with the NWT Seniors’ Society since 1983. “We’ve had calls from neighbours, and from family members on behalf of other family members,” says Braden. “People are starting to come forward.”

While government agencies and academics are working to help police detect and even prevent elder abuse, others are coping with the more immediate problem of caring for victims. Calgary’s Kerby Centre, a 26-year-old nonprofit resource centre for seniors, recently opened a 32-bed $ 1.7-million shelter to house increasing numbers of abused seniors. “The need for it is becoming very evident,” says volunteer Betty McCreight. Edmonton’s Catholic Social Services, meanwhile, which initiated elder-abuse programs a decade ago, joined forces with police and city-funded agencies last year to respond to crisis calls. “We try to educate both victims and perpetrators,” says Fori Therrien, a co-ordinator with Catholic Social Services, “and assess which options are best for the family.”

But families often refuse the help that’s offered. Janet would not press charges against her son, Brian, even after he attacked his father, largely because she did not want to send their son to jail. Brian is now known to police and is required to keep away from his parents, but he maintains phone contact with them. “After all,” she explains, “he is still my child.” That parental bond often frustrates the efforts of care-workers, who strive to provide protection and support for vulnerable seniors. “We have to respect that they are still adults,” says Waltraud Grieger, executive director of Nova House, a shelter in Selkirk, Man. “And we have to respect their choices and options.” Even if those choices put them at further risk. E¡]