Elder abuse is a hidden problem, but elder abuse within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LBGT) communities is especially under the radar, according to a Simon Fraser University gerontologist who spoke on Tuesday in Nelson.
Dr. Gloria Gutman said that fear of outing and homophobia may keep LGBT seniors from disclosing abuse, and there are many other reasons why the problem remains unrecognized.
“LBGT couples have a tendency to conceal problems in their relationships, since they have faced societal and family criticism,” she said. “When it comes to lesbians, there is often an assumption that women are highly unlikely to physically strike their partners. A US study of LGBT adults found that 65 per cent of seniors 60 and older had experienced verbal abuse, threat of violence, physical assault, threat of orientation disclosure, or discrimination and that 29 per cent had been physically attacked.”
Elder abuse is defined as harm or distress caused to seniors by a person in a position of trust. The most prevalent forms are physical, emotional, or financial abuse.
“Elder abuse most commonly happens in private households,” said Gutman, “where 92 per cent of Canadian seniors live. Only about eight percent are in institutions. In private homes they may be abused by spouse, lover, child, sibling, friend, neighbour, or caregiver. In institutional settings they may be abused by staff or visitors or sometimes by other residents.”
Gutman said material put out by people who do elder abuse prevention and response never mentions LGBT issues, and “when you go to various LGBT websites there is no mention of elder abuse.”
So she has started the LGBT End-of-Life Conversations Project and website. One of its activities is a series of meetings across the province including Tuesday’s event in Nelson.
“One of the aims of this project was to bring together the people who provide services to LGBT people with people who provide provide services to elder abuse and to get them talking together.”
Gutman said LGBT seniors are especially vulnerable to a number of risk factors for elder abuse: they are up to three times more likely to live alone, they report high levels of loneliness and isolation especially in rural areas, they are less likely to have children, when they do have children the children are less likely to be supportive, they are more likely to have experienced trauma, and they are more likely to have abused drugs or alcohol.
In the Nelson audience was attended by many caregivers and social service providers including Cheryl Dowden of ANKORS.
“In Nelson we like to think we are open minded and progressive,” she told the Star, “but this challenges our assumptions. The world has changed on a policy level, but on an emotional level this is a seniors population that when they came out (if they did come out) would have experienced a great deal of homophobia and are still dealing with the repercussions of that.
“The important thing about this event is that it raises awareness, it shines a light. We need to be alert to it, provide informed support, and continue to have this dialogue about how to support this population.”