Abusers are often family members
But the police service's seniors and vulnerable adult liaison officer said she suspects incidents reported to police are only the tip of the iceberg.
“Seniors don't always trust the judicial system,” Burns said, speaking to Northern Life at a symposium on elder abuse held at the Minnow Lake Legion July 18.
“They don't want their dirty laundry hung out in public. That’s a common thing. They also don't know about the court process.
“Most seniors have never been to court. They’ve never even had a speeding ticket or a parking ticket. Now we want that same person to go into a court system they're not familiar with and tell their story?”
Burns, one of the guest speakers at the symposium, which was co-sponsored by the Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizens' Organizations and Mine Mill Local 598/CAW, said she thinks there should be a mandatory reporting system for elder abuse.
“We have it for children,” she said. “The template is already there. Many of our seniors, if they have a dementia, they go back to that child-like state. So why do we not protect them with the same type of protection that we have for children?”
Burns said she most often hears about seniors being financially abused.
“Theft by power of attorney is one of our more common forms of abuse,” she said. “With powers of attorney, your loved one is giving you the authority to do for them what they would do if they were capable of doing it for themselves. When you give somebody your power of attorney, you have to know you can trust that person 100 per cent.”
Seniors are also quite vulnerable to scams, Burns said.
“They're all very trusting people,” she said. “Now you have all these scams that come along, where someone says 'You send in $6 and your name will be put into a draw to be eligible for a new car. Well, what senior wouldn't want a new car?”
When a senior falls prey to a scam artist, the consequences can be “heart-breaking,” Burns said. “Many people lose their life savings in some of these scams.”
In terms of physical abuse, she said she thinks there should be harsher punishments for those who assault the elderly, because the chances of hurting them are so much higher.
“If you shove somebody who is younger, their pride is hurt,” Burns said. “If you shove an old person, you could break their hip. It could be fatal for them.”
The police officer advises people to be on the lookout for the signs of elder abuse.
For example, a senior who is being physically abused may have unexplained cuts or bruises or withdraw from their family and friends. A senior who is being financially abused may have a sudden decline in their standard of living.
Sudbury lawyer Don Kuyek shared his advice with those at the symposium on the legal issues surrounding seniors who are being financially abused.
Many people seems to misunderstand the role of powers of attorney, he said.
Powers of attorney can be appointed to take care of people's personal care or financial matters in case they're unable to look after these things for themselves, Kuyek said. That's usually when the person has become mentally incapacitated, he said.
However, if someone has a power of attorney, but are able to manage their own lives, they're still allowed to do so, Kuyek said.
“People will think 'I'm the child who has been appointed by the attorney, and my parent is not rational anymore,'” he said.
“'They're spending too much money on that, and shouldn't be doing this.' Well, you don't have the right to make those decisions. People are entitled to be irrational.”
Seniors also sometimes decide to give their children joint ownership of their property just to avoid them having to pay taxes when they die. It's not worth it, Kuyek said.
“There's a whole bunch of things that could happen before one's death,” he said.
“For example, the child sharing the ownership could get divorced or go bankrupt. They're an owner of your property. You don't have control over that. It might cost you $1,500 to get probates. You don't want to incur all that risk because of $1,500.”
Josée Miljours, another speaker at the symposium, said statistics show that between four and 10 per cent of seniors face some form of abuse. But these numbers are misleading, she said.
“Those of us who work in the area know that it's much higher because most cases are never reported because it's family (who are abusing them),” Miljours, the regional consultant for northeastern Ontario with the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, said.
“Seniors don't report abuse.”
Nevertheless, she encourages seniors who are living with abuse to find the courage to phone police or Crime Stoppers.
If they just need someone to talk to, they can phone her organization's 24/7 provincial talk line, which can be reached at 1-866-299-1011.
Posted by Arron Pickard