Violence Behind Closed Doors: Time To Face The Reality About Elder Abuse

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A high-profile murder case shines a spotlight on how far elder abuse can go.

Lethbridge, Alta., is a sleepy agricultural hub in the middle of the Prairies, quiet and split by a deep coulee along the Oldman River.

In the winter of 2016, Lisa Freihaut and her husband drove south from Calgary to visit her mother, Irene Carter, who lived in the city’s south end. When they arrived—they claimed—the couple found 78-year-old Carter dead on the floor, her body maimed by multiple stab wounds. Soon afterwards, a distraught Freihaut spoke at a police press conference, appealing to the public for any information they may have in regards to her mother’s death. On a blue background in front of the glare of the cameras, she became the classic image of a family member in mourning.

But at the time, she was a person of interest in the investigation. And, in late April, 51-year-old Freihaut was charged with second-degree murder. According to the police, a disagreement about finances between her and her mother had turned sour.

Irene Carter’s case is a tragic example of how elder abuse permeates everyday relationships and can lead to serious crime, without much warning. Though the outcome rarely leads to murder, in her death Carter has shone a light on just how far elder abuse can go.

At its core, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines elder abuse as “a single or repeated act, or a lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person.” Elder abuse is, in many ways, a convenient crime, perpetrated most often by loved ones in a society that often allows senior citizens to fade from our view.

Next: Between four and 10 per cent of elderly people in Canada experience abuse…

According to a report from the National Seniors Council, released in 2007, it’s estimated that between four and 10 per cent of elderly people in Canada experience some kind of abuse—but the abuse itself can be hard to define and is therefore under-reported. A recent CARP poll suggested that 30 per cent of members knew someone who had been subjected to elder abuse.

“It’s difficult to capture actual numbers of abused, mainly because it’s so under-reported” says Wanda Morris, CARP’s COO and VP of Advocacy. “It’s a cruel paradox that victims are often entirely dependent on the abuser. So while they may fear for their lives and want to go to the police, they worry they’ll lose their lone supporter if they do report it.”

Those who work in seniors care across the country told the National Seniors Council at a series of meetings in 2007 that financial abuse is the most frequently occurring form of abuse they witness in their work.

Closely followed by psychological and physical abuse, financial abuse is difficult for outsiders to spot and is in many instances a private crime. “A lot of these files can get pretty complex,” says Det. Ken Mah, who is a part of the Edmonton Police Service’s (EPS) elder abuse special task force, the Seniors Protection Partnership (SPP). Through the program, EPS works alongside financial institutions in the city to launch in-depth investigations into instances of suspected abuse against seniors. “Our challenges are in obtaining some of these documents,” explains Det. Mah. “Oftentimes, when a family member or someone in a position of trust has power of attorney, they have access to all of the senior’s funds. Given this huge responsibility, it can be very tempting. It’s quite easy to sort of transfer funds into your own account.”

From there, it becomes an issue of believability—and it requires the abused to take charge, an overwhelming task that is rarely taken on. And even when charges are laid, Mah says that in many cases, the senior citizen being taken advantage of passes away before their court case is ever heard. “You can see a lot of similarities between domestic and elder abuse,” he says. “Even the way our section is structured, we are under the same section as spousal violence. This is very under-reported stuff, which usually happens behind closed doors and isn’t talked about in the open.”

Next: The foundations of elder abuse…


The foundations of elder abuse—how it happens, the victims and perpetrators, and how we treat it—have indeed been built along the same parameters of domestic abuse and sexual assault. And like those crimes, “The likelihood that a victim of elder abuse will tell anyone is very low—around 10 per cent,” says Lynn McDonald, principal investigator at the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (NICE). “On top of that, close family [whom you might tell] are the most likely to be abusers. We need to get older people empowered enough to speak up to each other.”

In 2009, the Government of Canada produced and released a series of television commercials on elder abuse, the majority of which focused on opportunities for financial exploitation. But, as McDonald says, investing research dollars into making it easier for elderly people to communicate among each other is not exactly top of mind, no matter the need. “If you’re a gerontologist or geriatrician, you’re often struggling to make the point that older people do matter,” she says. “[Elder abuse] is only going to get worse, in the sense that the population of older people is growing.”

In 2015, NICE completed what’s considered one of the best—and, in fact, one of the only—studies into elder abuse in Canada. In their work, the team used research methods that were originally developed to study the frequency of domestic abuse. “We used a life course perspective, where we asked people if they had been abused as a child or youth, or in their middle-adult ages,” says McDonald. “We were stunned to find a very significant predictor of being abused as an older person is being abused earlier in life. Like victims of sexual assault, elder abuse victims are often scared that others won’t believe them, and they are wary of risking personal relationships by coming forward.” Their report uncovered some staggering numbers—of those who had reported being abused, 46 per cent had experienced some form of neglect or abuse in the past 12 months. And in many cases, they don’t know that they’re being abused at all. “They might say that, yes, they had had their hair pulled but, no, they are not being abused,” says McDonald. “But if they don’t see themselves as victims, we better look into that.”

Pat Power, a social worker at Edmonton Police Service, says elder abuse is chronic—the service often hears from the same victims five or six times in a year. “One of the big things that holds them back is that this is family. For the victims, they see this is their children or grandchildren. That is a dynamic you don’t see in spousal abuse,” he says. “Sometimes it’s been normalized over 30 or 40 years that this is how the family operates, so we have to do some education surrounding how you shouldn’t be treated as a person.
Mah thinks that if elder abuse continues to follow the public discourse trajectory set by domestic assault, soon we’ll be more aware of the problem as a society—and more willing to act on preventive measures.

“[Domestic abuse groups] are a lot further ahead because there’s more awareness and education with regards to [people] jumping on board and talking about it at places like awards shows,” he explains. “That hasn’t happened yet for elder abuse, but I think it will. It’s just a matter of time.”

When she was a practising nurse at a hospital in rural northern Alberta, Sandra Hirst found herself touring a nursing home facility with one of her supervisors. “I saw a staff member give a rope burn to an older adult in a chair,” she says. “I didn’t know how to respond, and my supervisor said nothing…I got back in the car and thought, ‘Sandi, you’re ashamed, and that’s not going to happen again.'”

So she started reading and began her doctoral research in the field of elder abuse. Now teaching within the University of Calgary’s faculty of nursing, she’s become a strong voice in elder abuse advocacy. “Unless seniors feel confident in stepping up, they’re missed because no one goes into their home and they may not attend a seniors’ club.”

Hirst is also active in organizations like NICE and sees examples of interesting interventions in identifying elder abuse in the public realm. “In the United States, postal workers are recognizing abuse [when they drop off the mail.] Maybe we should be training [volunteers like] transportation drivers, so they know the red flags and ask a social worker for help to follow up. It’s about promoting safety and quality of life.”

Next: Social services in Alberta have emerged as leaders…

Social services in Alberta have emerged as leaders in the field of elder abuse prevention and monitoring in Canada. In fact, Family Service Toronto’s apartment for abused seniors was inspired by a group of seven similar apartments, all in Edmonton. “They are often five to 10 years ahead of us,” explains Lisa Manuel, of Family Service Toronto. While this is due to government support over a decade ago, Manuel also credits part of that simply to location and demographics—Edmonton is a smaller city, so it’s easier for social services to work with the police on a closer basis.

That looks like a large group of people from all disciplines sitting down to hash out the problem: “We are literally at the table every week discussing cases of elder abuse,” says Power, at Edmonton Police Service, about the city’s Seniors Protection Partnership. Seated at the table are representatives from the City of Edmonton Community Services, Catholic Social Services and Covenant Health. “We go through to understand if it’s elder abuse, what’s the priority and what are the risks.”

CARP’s Wanda Morris says the association has redirected its advocacy efforts away from increasing sentences for elder abuse perpetrators. “Research shows stiffer penalties do not deter abusers.” Now, CARP is taking a more proactive approach. “We need to fix the problem at the beginning,” says Morris. This means working with all levels of government, community organizations, the police and health-care system.

“As well, we need to provide more provisional support so that those who report their caregivers are not left out on the street,” says Morris. “When they reach out for help, we must ensure help is there for them.” CARP is also calling for an elder abuse hotline as well as a legislated duty requiring professionals suspicious of elder abuse to report it immediately, a law that’s already in place in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

It’s now time to turn all the talk, studies, inter-agency meetings and initiatives to spawn formal action. “People are really and truly wanting to work together,” says Manuel, of the services in Toronto. “But there is no one in the world of elder abuse who really has a mandate to follow seniors through all these processes.

That’s what people who are being abused need. They need someone to walk that journey with them.”

Lisa Freihaut was released on bail in June. Her mother’s murder was Lethbridge’s first homicide case of 2016 and, when hearings start in January, 2017, it will have been more than a year since she died. Freihaut has chosen to forego a jury; a judge alone will walk Carter’s journey with her, too late.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue with the headline, “Violence Behind Closed Doors,” p. 58-61.