You’ve probably seen the telltale signs. But you weren’t sure. You didn’t want to embarrass or incriminate anyone. It wasn’t really your business.
That, says Margaret MacPherson of Western University, is why elder abuse remains a hidden epidemic. Friends, neighbours, relatives and caregivers sense that something is wrong. But they don’t speak out or step in.
For the past three years, MacPherson has been spearheading the development of a campaign called It’s Not Right! Changing Social Norms for Bystanders of Abuse of Older Adults. The objective is to turn bystanders into first responders. She and her colleagues from the university’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children introduced it to 130 federal and provincial officials, health-care professionals, social workers, police officers and non-profit leaders at a recent conference in Toronto.
If their approach takes root, elder abuse will spread from the criminal justice system into the realm of social responsibility. Getting involved will become the norm. Challenging ageism — from the use of demeaning language about older people to the impatient shoves and insulting put-downs they endure — will be accepted, indeed expected.
MacPherson’s partner and community link in this endeavour is Alison Leaney, co-ordinator for vulnerable adults at the office of the Public Guardian and Trustee in British Columbia. She has worked in the field for more than 20 years. Her role is to train citizens from coast to coast to overcome their uncertainty. A core group is already trained and reaching out to others in their region. Most of the members were at last week’s conference.
There are no reliable statistics on elder abuse. Front-line workers estimate that somewhere between 4 and 10 per cent of seniors are abused physically, mentally, sexually or financially every year. But those are just the reported cases. The vast majority are not reported.
Contrary to common belief, most elder abuse does not occur in nursing or retirement residences. It happens in people’s homes. The majority of perpetrators are family members. Seniors say nothing because of fear, shame or a desire to protect the loved one who is hurting them. It happens at every socio-economic level in every part of the country.
Changing public attitudes is a three-part process. First, people need to be taught to recognize the warning signals. Second, they need to get beyond their misgivings. Finally, they need the tools to intervene properly.
Step one is relatively easy. Most people know what to look for: unexplained injuries (bruises, lacerations, fractures); behavioural changes (withdrawal, fearfulness, depression); unusual financial transactions (large cash withdrawals, sale of property, liquidations of assets).
Step two becomes easy when you realize what’s holding you back is often misinformation. Alan Berkowitz, an American psychologist specializing in bystander behaviour pointed to three common beliefs — all wrong — that immobilize people.
• Most bystanders mistakenly think everybody else knows more than they do.
• Most abusers mistakenly assume everyone else treats older adults the way they do.
• Most people who want to help mistakenly believe they are outliers.
“If you don’t think other people are likely to do anything, you’re less likely to act,” Berkowitz said. “The perception becomes the reality.”
Step three is largely common sense. It doesn’t take a psychology degree to figure out what to do — and what not do — when you suspect elder abuse.
1. Listen carefully. Don’t judge or jump to conclusions.
2. Encourage the individual to be his or her own advocate. People are more likely to act if they make the plan.
3. Don’t take charge of the situation without the permission of the person you’re trying to support. If he or she doesn’t want help, respect that.
4. Don’t be frustrated if an older adult insists nothing is amiss. Victims sometimes protect their abuser because it’s a person they love unconditionally and don’t want to be separated from.
5. Don’t confront the suspected perpetrator. That can lead to retaliation against the victim.
6. Ask if there’s someone the person would like to speak to — a doctor, a priest or minister, a social worker, a financial adviser, the head of the nursing or retirement home.
7. Offer to find out what local services are available in the area.
MacPherson boils it down to a simple message: “You don’t have to solve the problem,” she stressed. “You just have to ask the older person: Are you OK? Do you want to talk about it? What can I do to help?”
“If we can teach everybody to take these steps, we can change attitudes.”
The goal is ambitious. The gain would be immeasurable.