Elder Abuse a Serious Issue in Ontario

An elderly woman living on her own in a house tucked away in a relatively isolated rural area of Grey-Bruce was surprised one day last year to hear a knock on the door. She may have peeked out the front window to see who it was. She may have had a moment’s anxiety; but, if the sad truth be known, she was also lonely, and pleased at the prospect of having some company. The man certainly looked presentable. And when she slowly, tentatively, opened the door a little he had a nice smile and seemed very friendly. 

He said he had something to show her that would make her life so much easier. Could she spare him a few minutes to let him demonstrate this wonderful new machine, how light and easy it was to use, and what a good job it would do to help her keep the house looking spic and span, just the way he knew she liked it?

“Well, yes, I guess so,” she said as she opened the door wide and let him in. He plugged in his nice, shiny new vacuum cleaner and set to work right away vacuuming her living room rug. He went into every little corner showing her how the various attachments worked. He even attached a special brush to do her couch and stuffed chairs. He was a very good worker, she thought. The carpet, everything, looked so nice and clean when he was finished and sat down to talk to her about how easy it was for her to have one of these remarkable machines. She would find it just as easy to handle as he had, he said, except she could do an even better job because no doubt she was a lot better at this sort of thing than he was. He could tell just from looking at how well she kept her house.

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m getting on, you know,” she said a little shyly.

“Now, now, don’t do your self a disservice. I can tell how much you love your home. And this wonderful machine will help you keep it just the way you want.”

Such a nice man. And it really did do a good job. So she bought it. Paid for it then and there. He also got her to sign something else, something to do with her credit card. He made it sound like it was nothing important, just a little bit of paperwork. She didn’t quite understand. But she signed it anyway.

Over the course of the next year $280 per month was charged to her credit card account, to pay for the vacuum cleaner, even though “she paid for it when she bought it,” said Laura Balletta, resource coordinator of the new Owen Sound Elder Abuse Project. It began in January, 2005. By the end of the first year Balletta received 48 reports of possible incidents of elder abuse from various referral sources, including the Community Care Access Centre in Owen Sound where her office is located. The CCAC is a one-stop agency that helps seniors and caregivers access a variety of support services. Reports of possible elder abuse from throughout Grey-Bruce also come from police, nursing homes, anonymous callers, family and friends of seniors, and from elderly people themselves on the local elder abuse telephone hotline. In addition to those 48 referrals and complaints Balletta was consulted 128 times in 2005 by caregivers like doctors and visiting nurses for advice in helping them deal with situations they encountered in the course of their work.

To increase public awareness about the problem of elder abuse, sometimes called our society’s “hidden crime,” Balletta makes regular presentations to various groups throughout the area.

The Grey-Bruce area’s first-ever Seniors Advocacy and Awareness Conference, called “A Community Response,” was held on June 7, 2006 at the Davidson Centre in Kincardine. It wass sponsored by Grey-Bruce CCAC and Seniors Advocacy and Awareness Network (SAAN), and United Way of Bruce-Grey.

Lisa Nerenberg, a North American expert on elder abuse, was one of several keynote presenters. Nerenberg has been actively involved in the field of elder abuse prevention for over 20 years. She’s currently a consultant to local, state and national organizations in the U.S. For 16 years, she directed the San Francisco Consortium for Elder Abuse Prevention at the Institute of Aging, which piloted first elder abuse multidisciplinary team in the U.S. and other innovative service models that have since been copied there and in Canada. They include a support group for victims, culturally specific outreach initiatives, and professional training for people who may see evidence of possible elder-abuse situations where they work.

Roxy Barnes and Joan Hill were also on the conference agenda. They’re two seniors committed to raising awareness about elder abuse in communities. They enact different situations where elder abuse may be present.

I confess to taking a little dramatic license myself in describing the vacuum cleaner scam and its elderly victim at the start of this column. But it is based on an actual incident that took place in the Grey-Bruce area last year. It was one of the 48 elder abuse complaints Balletta investigated.

In another similar incident an elderly woman was scammed out of $60,000 before anyone realized something was wrong. The woman initially bought one vacuum cleaner. A month later the salesperson came back and sold her another one, claiming it was an even better model. She paid for both of them with a series of post-dated cheques. But the amount specified on the cheques was later changed to almost 10 times the value with the addition of an extra “0”. Balletta said the victim was too embarrassed to press for charges to be laid following a police investigation. “They just sign their lives away,” she told me in a recent interview.

In another part of Grey-Bruce a supposedly helpful friend was in the habit of driving an elderly man to the bank so he could withdraw money. But the amounts were excessive. Turned out the “friend” was pocketing a lot of the older man’s money. A neighbour became suspicious and called the Grey-Bruce elder abuse hotline.

Balletta said the banks need to do more to retrain their staff to be on the lookout for such things; as a result, the local elder abuse project’s schedule for this year includes even more bank presentations.

The statistical report for the first year of operation revealed the most prevalent form of elder abuse in Grey-Bruce last year was financial (63 percent), followed by psychological or emotional abuse (34 percent), physical (21.7 percent), neglect (6.5 percent), followed by sexual abuse and self-neglect at 2.2 percent each.

The local elder abuse project is an extension of the Ontario’s government’s five-year, $4.3 million strategy to combat elder abuse. The SAAN Website defines it as “any action or inaction by self or others that jeopardizes the health or well being of an older adult. This includes physical, emotional, financial, and sexual as well as passive or active neglect. The abuse typically occurs with a person in a position of trust. Many acts of abuse are criminal offences; none are acceptable.”

Ontario is home to 1.5 million seniors and research indicates that currently four to ten percent (60,000-150,000) of them have experienced or are experiencing abuse of some kind. My sense is it’s bigger, both locally and provincially, than the stats indicate; and $4.3 is nowhere near enough.

I’ve written a couple of times in this space before about the proliferation of scams and frauds that target the elderly especially, but other vulnerable people as well. They show up in the mail, over the phone, and at the front door. They’re slick, smart and well trained in manipulative skills, and completely lacking in conscience. I find it incredibly sad, for example, that people living in nursing homes, people with little cognitive ability, are still bothered by telemarketing scam artists. You know, the ones who always call around suppertime.

The worldwide network of psychic scammers who trade “sucker” mailing lists back and forth is surely one of the worst examples of elder abuse. One situation I became aware of some time ago was causing a great deal of stress and distress for the family involved as the targeted victim was obviously being lined up for the big financial, predatory kill. So I sent a letter threatening police and legal action to one of the return addresses about a year ago. The psychic letters stopped coming, all of them. But of course that many-headed monster is still preying on countless other people, and no doubt getting rich in the process.

It’s a jungle out there for the elderly. But, sad to say, the jungle is more often than not close to home. In the majority of cases the people who commit elder abuse, in whatever form it takes, are members of the elder’s own family, Balletta said.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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