A new strategy to make NWT safer for seniors

A new strategy to make NWT safer for seniors
Members of the NWT Seniors’ Society held their AGM in Fort Smith on Sept. 10.Photo: Craig Gilbert

Cigarettes, cigarettes, cigarettes. Money, money, money. The hopeless words of a NWT elder whose financial barriers include members of her own family.

“They come around and ask for cigarettes, money, money, money, money … just over and over again and if they don’t get it, she doesn’t have it, they get mad,” she said through an interpreter.

In a jurisdiction where elder abuse is 25 times more common than the rest of Canada, a new five-year strategy to make communities across the NWT safer for seniors 60 years or older, who stand to account for 20 per cent of the population here by 2020.

Revealed Sept. 10 at the NWT Seniors’ Society AGM in Fort Smith, the report is the product of the NWT Network to Prevent Abuse of Older Adults, a collection of 73 individuals and agency members from government, NGO, First Nations and community organizations across the territory.

We’re fortunate to live in small communities where people care for one another. More people are seeing (elder abuse) and there has been a tendency to not talk about it.
—  Barb Hood, NWT Seniors Society

All forms of abuse exist in the NWT but financial abuse and neglect are the most common. The numbers are cold but the impact is 100 per cent human: family violence against seniors jumped 14 per cent in Canada between 2009 and 2014, and the rate of seniors reporting abuse to police was 61 per 100,000 persons. In the NWT, that figure was 1,543 per 100,000.

Among the about 600 seniors interviewed in 2015, two-thirds reported being abused financially, in the form of pension cheques being taken or the outright theft of cash and 53 per cent said they experienced a lack of care, over- or underuse of medication and loneliness.

Another 47 per cent described “disrespect, threats, blaming or other emotional abuse,” while 43 per cent said they had endured “yelling, name-calling, swearing or other verbal abuse.” A third reported physical abuse including hitting, beating and slapping, 11 per cent reported being forced to have sex or being raped.

Underpinning it all is the estimate that seven out of 10 incidents of elder abuse are never reported to police. According to the strategy, 55 per cent of seniors are not aware of their right to live without abuse and more than half don’t know how to protect themselves or where to go for help.

The executive director of the NWT Seniors’ Society, Barb Hood, doesn’t completely buy the idea that elder abuse is several times higher north of the 60th parallel, wondering whether increased awareness and reporting could be behind the statistic.

“I don’t think it’s any worse here than in other parts of the world,” she said.

We’re fortunate to live in small communities where people care for one another. More people are seeing it, and there has been a tendency to not talk about it, but it has been a focus of our organization for the last five years and (the NWT Network) has been working on it for 20.”

She said the society’s seniors’ help line receives about two calls per month about abuse, either from the senior or a concerned family member.

“We have firsthand experience in seeing this growing,” Hood said. “It’s important to keep educating and training frontline staff. They’re the ones who see it and feel sometimes their hands are tied.”

The strategy taking aim at those sobering facts in order to make communities safer for seniors is fourfold, involving public engagement, education and training, community responses and policy and legislation.

“We talked about this in 2011 and now it’s a reality,” Hood continued. “We have tools we can use and workshops we can put on, and the Health department has requested training for frontline staff.”

She said Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy, who was in Fort Smith for the 55+ Friendly Games over the weekend, is on-board.

“We have a minister who is interested in seeing this addressed in a couple of ways so I hope it will continue at the government level,” she said. “The department has had an action plan for a bit now and they’re looking at it we’ll be advising the minister I’m sure.”

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