Dealing with the unthinkable: Elder abuse


By Susan C. Jenkins

Elder abuse is a serious and growing problem. It is difficult to know how widespread it is, because so many cases go unreported, but in 2014-2015 the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly conducted a survey to try to determine how many community-dwelling Canadians (those not living in care facilities) were the victims of elder abuse and neglect. The survey revealed that about 7.5 per cent of older adults (75 out of every 1,000) experienced abuse in the previous year. When neglect is included with other forms of abuse, the figure jumps to 8.2 per cent (82 out of every 1,000 Canadian seniors).

What is elder abuse?

Elder abuse—actions that cause harm or the risk of harm—can take many forms. It can be a single incident or a repeated pattern, and it can happen in a senior’s own home, in a hospital, or in a long-term care facility.

Generally, elder abuse is categorized as:

  • Psychological abuse: actions or communications that lessen a person’s dignity, sense of identity, or feelings of self-worth
  • Financial abuse: improper conduct that results in monetary or personal loss for the older adult or gain for the abuser
  • Physical abuse: violence or rough handling that causes discomfort or pain
  • Sexual abuse: sexual behaviour directed toward an older person without that person’s knowledge or consent
  • Neglect: not meeting the person’s basic needs


Psychological abuse is the most common form, affecting 2.7 per cent of older Canadians daily or almost daily. Financial abuse comes in second at 2.6 per cent, followed by physical abuse at 2.2 per cent, sexual abuse at 1.6 per cent, and neglect at 1.2 per cent.

Preventing abuse

The first step in preventing elder abuse is understanding what makes a person a likely victim. There are several factors to look out for.

  • Confusion or lack of clear thinking: Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can make it difficult to communicate and understand what other people are saying. These diseases can also cause behaviours that caregivers find difficult and frustrating.
  • Dependency: Difficulty with activities of daily life such as preparing meals, bathing, dressing, and toileting make a person dependent on others.
  • Isolation: Having few family members or social contacts to check on them.
  • Limited financial resources: People with limited finances may not be in a position to change caregivers or move to another facility if they aren’t receiving proper care.


Someone who is experiencing abuse may be ashamed or embarrassed to tell anyone about it, or the person may fear retaliation or punishment if the abuse is made known. Therefore, it is important to watch for the telltale signs of possible abuse. These include:

  • Changes in the person’s personality or behaviour
  • Fear, anxiety, or depression
  • Being passive in the presence of caregivers
  • Unexplained injuries such as bruises or broken bones
  • Repetitive behaviours such as rocking, sucking, or mumbling to one’s self
  • Dehydration or poor nutrition
  • Improper medication use
  • Confusion about new documents such as a new will or mortgage
  • Sudden reduction in finances
  • Reluctance to talk about the situation


How you can help

Visit and call as often as you can so that a potential abuser will know that mistreatment is likely to be noticed.  Look for the potential warning signs of abuse and report your concerns to the police, to the person’s healthcare providers, or to social services.

If you are the one who is being abused, neglected, or mistreated, tell at least one person you trust—a friend, family member, doctor, or religious counsellor.

Seniors Safety Line (SSL)

The SSL provides contact and referral information for local agencies across the province that can assist in cases of elder abuse. Trained counsellors also provide safety planning and supportive counseling for older adults who are being abused or at-risk of abuse. Family members and service providers can also call for information about community services.

Seniors Safety Line: 1-866-299-1011

Long Term Care ACTION Line: If you suspect or have evidence that elder abuse is taking place in the Long-Term Care Home it is mandatory to report it with the exception of residents themselves (who have a choice in the matter). The Long-Term Care Homes Act (s.24) states if a person who has reasonable grounds to suspect abuse has occurred or may occur shall immediately report the suspicion and the information to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care Director.  Tel: 1-866-434-0144 (7 days a week, 8:30a.m.-7:00 p.m.)

Retirement Home Regulatory Authority (RHRA) -You must report elder abuse immediately to the RHRA if you see or suspect harm or risk of harm to a resident resulting from: Improper or incompetent treatment or care, abuse of a resident by anyone or neglect of a resident by staff of the retirement home, unlawful conduct, or misuse or misappropriation of a resident’s money. Tel: 1-855-ASK-RHRA (1-855-275-7472)

More information can be found at or by phoning 416-916-6728 or emailing