Nelson advocates who assess elder abuse claims believe there are more seniors being taken advantage of than what is being reported by Interior Health.
From January 2019 to December 2021 there were 34 cases of elder abuse in Nelson, according to Interior Health. During that span of time there were a total of 985 reports across the health authority, which includes the Kootenays and Okanagan.
Gail Russell, a founding member of the Nelson and Area Elder Abuse Prevention Program, said she believes those stats don’t accurately show how much abuse is happening. Seniors who are taken advantage of financially by family members who don’t recognize their behaviour as abusive, Russell said, are examples of cases she thinks are under reported.
“As far the tip of the iceberg versus how big the iceberg is below water, I think we are still just seeing the top quarter of what’s happening,” said Russell. “I think as awareness increases, I think that’s when we will continue to see an increase in reporting.”
A report released in December by B.C.’s seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie found a 49 per increase of abuse, neglect and self-neglect abuse cases over the last three-to-five years across the province.
The same report also showed a 69 per cent increase in reports of violent crimes that victims who are seniors made to the RCMP.
Nelson’s elder abuse prevention program has run since 2008 under the umbrella of the Nelson and District Seniors Coordinating Society. The volunteer-run service offers community outreach and drop-in services to people with questions about elder abuse cases.
Clients who contact the program may be referred to a different service or asked to come in for a confidential meeting, depending on the severity of the claim. Abuse investigations are carried out by Interior Health, but the Nelson program can make confidential referrals to the health authority if a client requests it.
Christie Heuston, one of the program’s founders, said it’s common for clients to not recognize signs of abuse. They may also be hesitant to report it due to social stigma.
“There have been people who’ve come in where I explained to them that actually how their son is treating them is abusive,” said Heuston. “They don’t want to see that because they love their son and it’s a family matter and it’s embarrassing.”
It also doesn’t require two people for there to be a case of abuse.
Some seniors, Russell said, neglect their own care as their ability to live independently diminishes. Self-neglect cases, she added, can be solved by providing assistance that is unobtrusive instead of moving clients to assisted living facilities.
Those supports — such as the Broader Horizons Adult Day Program in Nelson — have been impacted during the pandemic, but Russell believes they could be revitalized if more people come forward with needs or claims of abuse.
“I think as we see reporting grow, we will see an increase to capacity and manpower at that front-line level. Not the administrator, but the home support, the nurse and the social worker who will be going to see those individuals.”
But Yvonne Shewfelt, the program’s steering committee chair, also has concerns about one of Mackenzie’s recommendations: changes to the Adult Guardianship Act.
The legislation lays out how B.C. residents become statutory property guardians as well as how allegations of abuse or neglect are investigated. Unlike the Child, Family and Community Service Act that says residents have a duty to report child abuse, there is no such requirement in the Adult Guardianship Act.
Mackenzie wants that changed, but Shewfelt said it could lead to rulings against an adult’s autonomy. Many of the seniors the Nelson program works with, she said, still have the capacity to make their own decisions.
“You really need to determine whether that older adult has significant cognitive or other decision-making issues. Otherwise they have a right to live the way they are and what they choose.”
The Nelson and Area Elder Abuse Prevention Program serves the Nelson area from Salmo north to Kaslo and the Slocan Valley. Its office, located at 719 Vernon St., is open Wednesdays from 12 to 2 p.m. Appointments can be made by calling 250-352-6008 on Tuesdays to Thursdays. More information about the program can be found online at nelsonelderabuseprevention.ca.