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Province asks for public input on definition of elder abuse

The survey is available to the public until Oct. 25
2010 elder abuse jn CC
Areni Kelleppan, the executive director for Stop Abuse in Families (SAIF) is hoping the province expands the definition of elder abuse. FILE/St. Albert Gazette

St. Albertans can voice their opinions about the definition of elder abuse in a new survey released by the province this month.

The province released an online survey Oct. 4 to gather public input on an update to the definition. The survey is open from Oct. 4 to Oct. 25 and is the second part of a three-part engagement phase to help understand, recognize, and prevent elder abuse in communities.

Areni Kelleppan, executive director for Stop Abuse in Families (SAIF) Society, said theirs was one of many agencies to take part in the massive first-phase consultations on the definition of elder abuse, which took part early in the summer.

“I think a number of agencies like us supporting seniors who are at risk or vulnerable to abuse suggested that the definition needed to be a little broader, it was quite tight … abuse can be very complex,” she said.

She said they were surprised when the draft definition came out and it was still quite narrow.

“I'm not surprised that they're going back to the drawing board because they would have heard from a number of agencies like us and caregivers and other concerned citizens, that it wasn't covering the extent of the problem,” she said.

The extent of the problem is that there are many ways to look at family violence, including elder abuse, and when organizations or governments look for ways to define what elder abuse is, they often look at the Criminal Code. The problem is the Criminal Code can be quite limiting, said Kelleppan.

“The Criminal Code doesn't cover what many people would understand and accept as abuse, like verbal manipulation harassment, neglect, and isolation … some people think the Criminal Code can be very limiting, age-wise,” she said.

Universally, Kelleppan said, an elder is someone who is over 50 years old, but in Alberta, it ranges from 55 to 65.

“So again, [we're trying to nail] down what constitutes an elder,” she said.

Overall, she thinks the province is looking for a definition it can act on.

“I think that's probably where the struggle is coming from — the ability to contain the definition so it’s something that they can act upon and do it in a way that doesn't break the bank, for lack of a better way of putting it,” she said.

There are a few things Kelleppan would like people to keep in mind while filling out the survey, the first being that abuse is not always physical.

“There are so many types of abuse that harm people. [I'd like to make] sure that people are aware as they're filling out that survey to consider those other types of abuse, and if they've seen it, or witnessed it, or have maybe been guilty of it themselves, [and] what that means to a senior, and making sure that the definition encompasses that,” she said.

It’s tough to gauge how much of an issue elder abuse is in St. Albert, said Kelleppan, because SAIF serves the broader area, but they see just under 100 families a year for the elder-abuse program. Last year, they saw 92 families and about 80 per cent of those were St. Albert-based.

Kelleppan doesn’t think stats tell the whole picture because, just like domestic violence, elder abuse is likely under-reported, and most seniors never report abuse.

“One, they're afraid of retaliation, because the person who is abusing them is someone that they depend on for their independence. The person who's abusing them might be the one that gets their groceries and provides them for rides and things like that.

“They don't want to be the victim of retaliation or lose that sense of independence, or they might lose access to their grandchildren. Or it’s a loved one and they don't want to report the loved one. There are lots of reasons why they don't report,” she explained.

Elder abuse is similar to sexual assault as there is a stigma to it, said Kelleppan. People don’t often get charged and there’s not a ton of protection for seniors in legislation.

“It can be very difficult to get a conviction or to actually get any kind of justice when it happens,” she said.

Elder abuse is also unique in that both genders experience it equally, as opposed to intimate partner violence, where women and women-presenting individuals are the survivors, and male and male-presenting individuals are most often the perpetrators of abuse, she said.

Kelleppan hopes the province can land on a definition everyone can agree on.

“We see our population aging, we see more and more people at risk of abuse of elder abuse in our province, and so that definition is critical to then identifying the support that the province can help with,” she said.

Up until now, she continued, the province hasn’t offered much support to the agency for elder abuse.

“It's really time that we get some help for this problem. Just having that definition and the acknowledgment that it exists, and this is what it looks like, would carry us through to being able to then actually advocate for our clients a little bit better in the province.”

The survey can be found at https://your.alberta.ca/elder-abuse-prevention/survey_tools/public-engagement-survey