Bringing elder abuse to light

Note: this article, written by Grace Golightly, originally appeared in the Burnaby Now newspaper.

Norman is a 76-year-old man. Over the past few years, he has been beaten several times by his two middle-aged sons, who live in the family home and are financially dependent on their father and his old-age pension.

Once he was beaten for using his eldest son’s towel. The unemployed sons, aged 46 and 47, rarely allow him to leave the house.

Despite the beatings, Norman refuses to lay charges. He did once, but dropped the case before it got to court and left his temporary lodgings to return home to his family.

Students in a Burnaby Central grade 11 family management class say Norman should lay charges, although they understand he is growing frail and emotionally depleted, has nowhere else to go, no friends nor other family, and is likely feeling shame about the situation.

The students believe all these factors make Norman avoid talking to people about his situation.

The discussions were sparked by a federal youth corps pilot project in the video, “Perceptions of Abuse”, shown to students in the Lower Mainland. The project is intended to raise awareness of the problem of elder abuse and make connections between the two generations.

CityCorps member Simi Rangi-Bains, 24, said 150,000 cases of elder abuse were reported in Canada in 1991. Projections indicate more than 200,000 cases could be reported by 2021.

Students discussed possible factors in Norman’s abuse: how his self-esteem seemed low, why he wasn’t able to stand up to his sons, and how his social isolation leaves him few alternatives to living with them. Norman may also feel shame about what is happening, and that might cause him to hide rather than seek help.

Rangi-Bains and 20-year-old fellow corps member Mike Taylor also talked about less extreme cases, the kind that’s more frequent, but less likely to be reported: financial or emotional abuse, ignoring the elderly, taking advantage of them.

And they thought about what could contribute to someone becoming an abuser: issues like poor self-esteem, frustration, feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities.

Students were told where they could turn for help if they knew of an elder who was being abused, including the police, crisis line, another family member, a local health unit, family doctor, public trustee or the victim assistant line.

“I didn’t realize how serious it was,” said one student. Her classmates agreed more public education is needed to raise awareness, and to encourage those who are being abused to seek help.

“The video is designed to raise awareness about an issue that doesn’t often get discussed, especially in that age group,” said Erna Maurer, who produced the video for Generation Connection Society, a non-profit society that works to foster interest in inter-generational issues.

“We hope that they will gain a better understanding of some of the problems of the aged,” she added, “and to facilitate prevention in the future.”

Although it may be too late for Norman, an actual victim of elder abuse who lives in Chicago, many of the Central students who watched his story have a new understanding of the problem of elder abuse, and have some ideas of what to do if they meet an elder who is being abused.