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Suffering in silence

Workshop takes aim at elder abuse

Terry Halifax
Northern News Services

Hay River (May 21/01) - A two-day seminar held in Hay River last week, has seniors talking about how to combat the growing problem of elder abuse.

Jeannette Wright is a social worker from the Alberta government's elder abuse team. She says as the population reaches their golden years, the problem will only grow.

"This problem is not going to go away, it's going to get bigger," Wright said.

She told the delegates that a minimum of four per cent of elders are being abused, either financially, sexually, psychologically or physically.

By the national figures, 280 to 300 elders in the NWT are currently suffering abuse, but she suspects that number to be higher.

"Because of the remoteness of your communities, those figures might even be higher -- up to 10 per cent," she said.

Wayne Hill is a retired City of Calgary policeman, who now works with Alberta's office for the prevention of family violence.

He made the presentation with Wright to the national conference on elder's abuse in Ottawa last year, at a seminar in Vancouver and throughout Alberta.

Hill says talking about the problem is a big first step.

"If you compare it to domestic violence or family violence 25 years ago, it's something that not very many people talked about," Hill said. "What you're finding now, is it's more socially acceptable to talk about elder abuse now; they don't have the stigma attached as it once did."

For many reasons seniors will not report cases of abuse.

"We know it's an under-reported problem for a number of different reasons -- social isolation is one of them," he said.

He says the un-willingness to come forward is primarily because many of the abuses are perpetrated by family members.

"I'd ask anyone out there to close their eyes and try and visualize someone that they loved, hurting them," Hill said. "Certainly it's not a nice problem that you would have to deal with."

Executive Director of the NWT Seniors' Society, Barb Hood said the committee heard Wright and Hill's presentation at the national forum and sought them out to bring the seminar to Hay River and Yellowknife.

"We wanted to move past just talking about it and taking some action," Hood said. "The committee got very active in doing that."

While the sheer numbers of aging people will no doubt increase the incidence of abuse, Hood feels the problem has always been with us, just never addressed.

"The problem has always been very serious and I think we're just hearing about it more," she said. "There is a wider recognition by seniors that they don't like to see this happen and there has been a push to identify the problems."

Hood said the seniors need to get communities identifying what elder abuse is and understanding the methods of dealing with it.

"I've just recently visited a number of communities and elder abuse comes up as a problem in every community I've been in so far," Hood said. "It is very wide-spread."

She says the good news is that people are starting to talk openly about the situation, which is the first step in dealing with the problem.

Hood says the best defense doesn't come easy for many seniors, but talking about it is the best way to stop the abuse.

"They can find someone they trust," she said. "A social worker, a priest, the homecare worker who comes to your house."

"Keep talking about it; don't stop," she said. "When the abuser realizes you're not got to stop, they often run in fear."