BY KRISTINE BEREY
The wall of silence surrounding elder abuse is not as insurmountable as it once was, but the issue remains complex.
Seniors living in abusive situations have historically been reluctant to seek help for a number of reasons—physical or cognitive frailty, shame, social isolation and especially the emotional ties they have to the people they fear, often their own children. The prevailing view has been that abused seniors are ambivalent, fearful and therefore helpless.
But a recent report on the implementation and clinical relevance of the Elder Abuse Help Line challenges this perception.
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UQAM’s Michele Charpentier and Maryse Soulières of the CSSS Cavendish were surprised that of 4,879 calls during the first year, almost one-third came from the seniors themselves. Researchers found that ageist perceptions highlight seniors’ lack of capacity while diminishing their resilience and will to live in dignity.
Women between 70-89 made 43 per cent of the calls, but seniors over 90 called in as well. In more than half the cases, a family member was identified as the abuser and the most often cited forms of abuse were financial and psychological.
The line also provides a consulting service to health professionals. Among their cases, the incidence of physical violence was higher. It is estimated that between four and 10 per cent of seniors live in abusive situations.
Researchers also noted an overrepresentation of calls from private and public residences, 28 per cent, while only 11 per cent of seniors live in collective facilities.
Run by volunteers at CSSS Cavendish, the line employs social workers specializing in elder abuse.
The line is open from 8 am to 8 pm, providing confidential support, information, assessment, referrals and, with the caller’s permission, follow-up and intervention as necessary, so callers can get help at their own pace.
Thurza Dufresne is coordinator of SAVA Centre West (Shelter and Assistance for Victims of Elderabuse) a volunteer accompaniment and shelter service for seniors.
She says it is the first facility of its kind in eastern Canada. “Clients call us for support, social workers call us for consultations,” Dufresne says. “We are there to give social workers a helping hand; we can sit down as part of the intervention team.”
The public and health professionals may access SAVA’s services, delivered by a team of volunteers, as needed. “If a senior is in a suspected situation of abuse, where they need emotional support, they may not be ready to leave home, but are thinking about it and need someone to go to a lawyer or to the bank. A volunteer can take them. They are not involved in discussions but the senior will feel supported.”
The eight volunteers at SAVA come from diverse fields. “They are team of retired professionals who have had their own careers, including a judge, a doctor, a lawyer, nurse and administrator.” The team includes lawyer Ann Soden, who runs a legal clinic operated by law students.
When seniors decide they need to leave home, they are offered a safe place to stay while they rebuild their lives with SAVA’s help.
“They leave when they are ready. They choose where they want to go, tell us what they want.”
Dufresne’s experience reflects the research report’s findings. Since March, the refuge has had eight clients, only one of whom has decided to return to her former living arrangement.
She is awed by the transformation she has seen in the clients at the refuge, who go from exhaustion and despair to wanting to take initiative.
“The character and personality of the person starts to come out. It’s very powerful.
“Before, the belief was that seniors would never leave their home. It’s never been proved that they would. Now proof is there that says, yes, they will. To me, that is a huge display of the human capacity to want to live life to its fullest, to make our own decisions and be happy with ourselves.”
Elder Abuse Help Line: 1-888-489-2287.
SAVA Centre West: 514-903-3550.