Breaking the silence on senior abuse in Aboriginal communities

Since 1999, November 25 has been the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It was started to commemorate the brutal 1960 assassination of three sisters in the Dominican Republic. To mark the day, MI is exploring a problem not readily acknowledged or discussed in Indigenous communities: senior abuse.

While violence comes in many forms and touches every age group, the abuse of Aboriginal seniors rarely gets the attention it deserves.

‘Grandmother Spirit’ is the name of a groundbreaking research project exploring the safety and well-being of elderly Aboriginal women.

An initiative of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), organizers take the stance that, in order for one to understand Aboriginal senior abuse, one must first consider the historical and ongoing impacts of colonization on Aboriginal communities.

Billie Allan, an Anishinaabe member of the Shabot Obaadiwan First Nation, is a Health Research and Policy Officer with NWAC. As she explains:

“The devaluation of older people in society, even within broader Canadian society, we are very deeply affected by that. And the whole impact of colonization on our culture, things that did a lot of harm, was that devaluing of our old people.”

According to existing research literature, the risk of senior abuse increases when one or more of the following factors are present: social isolation, disability, reduced cognitive capacity, dependency or residing with someone who has an addiction (such as alcohol, drugs or gambling). Sadly, the older a senior gets, the greater the odds are that s/he will be abused.

And although no hard data exists on senior abuse in Aboriginal communities, Allan says there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. “We do know every community can identify that something is going around and people know about it.”

Senior abuse can range from the obvious — physical, sexual, psychological or emotional — but can also include financial or institutional abuse, neglect or the violation of rights.

“It can be children or grandchildren taking their grandparents’ medication or pressuring them to ask for prescriptions that they don’t need, [or] sedating our grandmothers and grandfathers so they can use their house for other purposes. Using their bankcards or giving it to someone, selling items from their house. And then there’s the spiritual and cultural piece — that is, shaming someone or harming one for trying to practice their cultural and spiritual beliefs,” said Allan.

Joyce Drouin agrees that ‘power of attorney’ is a large issue when it comes to senior abuse. She’s an Elder Abuse Prevention Coordinator with the Nepean Rideau Osgoode Community Resource Centre in Nepean, ON. But she also sees sad similarities between senior abuse and other forms of abuse.

“I really believe it is the cycle of violence. There is a consistent pattern that I see in terms of the cycle of violence with seniors as it is with women with partners and these types of situations. The pattern is very clear: the incident, the honeymoon period, and then the walking on egg shells,” Drouin says.

Allan and Drouin both note the many challenges that come with addressing senior abuse in Aboriginal communities. “There is a lot of shame in terms of reporting your children or your grandchildren,” Drouin adds. “It is very difficult to admit.”

Another problem is that it is often hard to prove the seriousness of senior abuse. “In most cases, they are not criminal offences,” says Drouin. “Neglect has to be over a long period of time with a pattern to be a criminal offence.”

And even in situations where seniors are provided with necessary support services — like housekeeping, home care and respite — there can still be problems.

Allan found that some community care givers can be nervous about reporting senior abuse. “They worry about the consequences, about how they are going to be treated by the community if they do speak about it, or fear of losing their job.”

She believes that, in order to stop senior abuse, grandmothers must be directly involved in the process. Historical roles need to be revitalized and respect given back to Aboriginal women.

With the ‘Grandmother Spirit’ project, part of NWAC’s mandate is to create material that raises awareness about senior abuse. Together with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, they’ve developed public service announcement television commercials set to be released next month.

The hope is that tools like these will help communities begin talking about this often difficult issue.

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