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Seniors advocate calls for reporting line for abuse and neglect amid rising reports

VICTORIA — British Columbia's needs a provincewide approach for reporting seniors abuse amid complaints that are "significantly rising," says the provincial advocate for seniors.

VICTORIA — British Columbia's needs a provincewide approach for reporting seniors abuse amid complaints that are "significantly rising," says the provincial advocate for seniors.  

Isobel Mackenzie says there is a clear five-year pattern of increasing reports of seniors abuse and neglect, but the fragmented reporting system suggests the problem could be more widespread.

"The challenge is that the system is not reliably effective, and many vulnerable seniors may be falling through the cracks," she says in her report released Wednesday. 

Over the past three to five years, the report says there has been a 49 per cent increase in reports of abuse, neglect and self-neglect to designated agencies, or health authorities. 

Complaints to RCMP of violent crime rose 69 per cent, while reports to Vancouver police of physical abuse was up 87 per cent and financial abuse up by 49 per cent, it says. 

Among her recommendations, Mackenzie says a review of the Adult Guardianship Act should consider the need to legally report suspected abuse of vulnerable adults, similar to an existing legal requirement to report child abuse. 

The report also calls for the implementation of a central contact with one phone number to call about concerns, to be managed by professionals trained in adult protection.

"We know that seniors abuse and neglect exists in our communities and there is growing concern that it's increasing yet remains hidden and invisible to most of us," Mackenzie said during a news conference.

The Health Ministry thanked the Office of the Seniors Advocate for the report in a statement. 

"This report shows there is more that needs to be done to make it easier for people to report abuse and neglect and to make people more aware of the importance of it," the statement says. 

The ministry says it is working with federal, provincial and territorial partners on a newly established elder abuse working group to ensure B.C. is implementing the most current and effective approaches. 

In the coming weeks and months, it will also work with B.C. partners like the provincial guardian and trustee, health authorities and service providers to find solutions. It will use the advocate's report as a source, the ministry says. 

RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

It's not clear exactly why reports of senior abuse are rising, and whether that indicates increases in abuse or simply more reporting, Mackenzie said. However, she added that there are many potential contributing factors, such as the isolation and stress created by COVID-19, poverty and an aging population. 

The fragmented reporting system means data is unreliable and it's difficult to assess patterns, identify gaps, make improvements and measure progress, the report says.

Mackenzie said a centralized reporting system would harness the strengths of agencies and the people already working on the issue. 

"What we need is a cohesive system that brings that group together and communicates to the public with one voice: 'This is what seniors abuse and neglect looks like. If you see it, report it. And here's the number you should report it to,'" she said. 

Once a centralized repository for reports is created, RCMP and municipal police would align their reporting and coding so that emergency calls that reach them first could be fed into the unified tracking system, she added.

The Adult Guardianship Act is largely responsible for protecting vulnerable seniors beyond the police protection offered under the Criminal Code.

The report says when the legislation was introduced 20 years ago, there were no provincial guidelines or standards followed, leaving a patchwork of implementation across health authorities and other organizations. 

It recommends that provincial standards and front-line training be developed, that there be a provincewide public awareness campaign, consistent data collection, and that methods and definitions be developed to monitor cases.

— By Amy Smart in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2021. 

The Canadian Press