Monday, June 2, 2008

Elder Abuse Laws 20 Years Behind

Ontario, Canada by Adam Peck, Guelph

Seniors advocates hope that Friday's June 15 , World Elder Abuse Awareness Day will lead to a better understanding of what they call an unnoticed crime.

"It's not that this is a new problem. It's probably where child abuse was 20 years ago," said Sheli O'Connor, Wellington County's Seniors At Risk system coordinator. "It's still considered a hidden crime."

There are five broad categories of abuse: financial, emotional, physical, sexual and neglect. Of those, emotional and financial abuse make up the vast majority of cases, she said.

Emotional abuse includes name-calling, treating elders as children, harassing them for money and threatening to institutionalize them.

Financial abuse is often related to misuse of power of attorney and usually occurs when a son or daughter is in financial trouble, and uses the power of attorney to sell their parent's house and assets and keeps the money for themselves. Often, a son or daughter's financial trouble will arise from a loss of job, addiction or mental health problems.

Although there are a few prominent examples of elder abuse, O'Connor says it's the number of unreported crimes that makes this silent crime so deafening.

"For every one you hear about, there are five crimes that aren't reported," she said.

A reason why it goes unreported is that 90 per cent of the time, abuse is committed by family members - often adult children - leaving victims feeling embarrassed, ashamed and afraid to come forward. And, she said, when abuse is reported it is often the financial and emotional forms, as they are considered less violating than other forms.

"They may be the ones you're hearing about, because it's easier (for an elderly person ) to report that their son took money from their account than they sexually assaulted them," she said.

Because victims are adults and not considered to be vulnerable and defenceless, there are no mandatory reporting laws like there are for child abuse, she said.

As seniors age, their support circles shrink and they can become quite isolated.

But he believes elder abuse is a problem that will continue to grow as the baby boomers get older, leading to more crimes and causing a greater demand for a specific police unit to deal with the offences.

Despite the criminal connotations, O'Connor says that elder abuse is a symptom of a bigger problem, which is society's own insecurities about aging, and abusing older people is one of the ways it is expressed. Essentially, she says, attitudes have to change if elder abuse is to stop. "It's about changing behavior and attitudes, not about a product," she said. "It's about changing how we feel about aging.

"It's not looking at the white hairs on the head and thinking it's a bad thing."

The SOS hotline is available 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday at (519) 767-4445.

Edited and Abridged for E.A. read entire article here >>

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