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World Elder Abuse Awareness Day: Call to action for lawyers

Monday, June 15, 2020 @ 1:59 PM | By Heather Campbell Pope

Heather Campbell Pope %>
Heather Campbell Pope
June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). Founded by Dr. Elizabeth Podnieks of Ryerson University, the first WEAAD was launched in 2006 at the United Nations building in New York City. Five years later, in 2011, the UN General Assembly officially designated June 15 as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. The annual commemoration is an opportunity to acknowledge the significance of elder abuse as a public health and human rights issue.

This year, as COVID-19 blazes through long-term care homes, WEAAD holds special significance. Like many Canadians, I was horrified to read the Canadian Armed Forces report on the medical conditions in five Ontario long-term care homes. The military also released a similarly disturbing report about the situation in Quebec. Just some of the undignified conditions witnessed by the army include: reusing dirty catheters; dispensing expired medication; soiled beds with no extra soaker pads; inappropriate sedation of sad and lonely residents; no psychosocial support; aggressive transfers; and forceful feedings causing audible choking.

Having been in the law and aging field for 10 years, this type of institutional elder abuse and neglect is familiar to me; nevertheless, it is distressing to hear — each and every incident brings me tremendous sadness.

The individual victims of this broken trust are our parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters. Many have loved ones desperately trying to access them. Others have been abandoned and forgotten, left to languish in nursing homes across the country; some have simply outlived their friends and partners, spending their final years slumped in rows of wheelchairs lining dim hallways and parked in overcrowded TV rooms.

While the conditions detailed in the military report pre-date COVID-19, the current public health crisis has pulled them from the shadows of society and put them into everyone’s plain view.

No one can deny that some of our most vulnerable citizens are suffering cruel and inhumane treatment — treatment that not only shocks the conscience of ordinary Canadians, but also violates the rights guaranteed to people of all ages under our country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) recently wrote in its demand letter to the government of Ontario, the province’s long-term care residents “are suffering a profound and ongoing violation of their constitutional rights to liberty and security of the person as protected by section 7 of the Charter.”

Every year, WEAAD provides an opportunity for reflection and action. These past few months, as I nurse my newborn son, I have thought about his future — as a teenager, young adult and hopefully one day, an old man. I am overcome with maternal pang thinking about the possibility of him growing old in a nursing home. In a prosperous and modern country like Canada — the birthplace of WEAAD — we can and must do better. It is well past time for action.

Inspired by Podnieks, this year’s WEAAD theme is “Uproot Elder Abuse, Plant a Seed for Change.” There are many ways for lawyers and other members of the legal community to get involved. From joining the social media campaign by using hashtags #UprootAbuse, #NeglectedNoMore and #WEAAD2020, to supporting legal organizations like the JCCF who have shown leadership and a willingness to defend the Charter rights of seniors in long-term care, there is something everyone can do.

At Dementia Justice Canada, a public advocacy association dedicated to advancing the rights and well-being of persons with dementia who are in conflict with the criminal justice system, we will be uprooting elder abuse and planting the seeds of change by renewing our call for the Parliament of Canada to incorporate access to justice into the National Strategy for Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias Act. Specifically, as we recommended in our housing vulnerability report, we will be urging the government to expand the National Dementia Strategy Advisory Board’s narrow health-related mandate and to expand its sectoral representation to include the justice community. Even in the absence of these legislative changes, we will continue to encourage the federal minister of health to appoint a justice sector representative to the dementia strategy’s advisory board.

Building on decades of progress by seniors advocates across the country and around the world, I look forward to advancing the elder rights movement through these small yet hopefully meaningful contributions. Older Canadians, particularly those who are vulnerable and often voiceless, deserve nothing less. I hope you will join us.

Heather Campbell Pope (LLB, LLM) is a former B.C. lawyer and founder of Dementia Justice Canada. Follow her at @SeniorsLaw and the organization at @DementiaJustice. To learn more about WEAAD, please visit Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse.

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