Edmonton·In Depth

Older adults often overlooked, lack supports when fleeing domestic violence, advocate says

The manager of an Edmonton domestic-violence shelter is urging the public to be mindful of a demographic of victims she says is often overlooked: older adults.

Seniors and the elderly can have complex needs that must be met, Michele Markham says

Michele Markham, manager of Sage Seniors' Safe House in Edmonton, says older adults can face distinct challenges when fleeing domestic violence. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it. 

There is no one profile or description that fits all victims of intimate partner violence, but Michele Markham says the public often envisions young women.

She urges people to consider another demographic she says is often overlooked.

"So many times I have heard people say, 'Oh I didn't realize that elder abuse was a thing,'" said Markham, manager of Sage Seniors' Safe House in Edmonton.

"It's like people believe, 'Oh you've hit this magic number,' — whatever that may be — 'and these kind of social issues don't pertain to you because you're an older adult.'"

"We have had older adults who have experienced sexual assault; who get really violently, horrifically assaulted; have had horrible things happen to them," Markham continued. "Their age doesn't protect them from being harmed."

Seniors and the elderly can face distinct challenges when fleeing domestic violence, she says. Deteriorating health can make it more difficult to physically leave an abusive home. Diminished social circles often don't provide the necessary support.

Then there are the generational attitudes that persist: that you just don't break up a marriage; that a husband is supposed to be dominant over his wife; that men should be ashamed to admit they are being abused.

Coercive environments are also easier to maintain if a partner is financially or physically reliant on their abuser, she said.

"Getting up and leaving is even more difficult if they are dependent on that person for bringing groceries, cooking, transportation, getting to medical appointments, opening the door to let home care in to provide care," Markham said, adding Sage receives many client referrals from home-care workers who spot potentially abusive situations.

Changes in behaviour and routine

Sage is part of the Seniors Protection Partnership, an initiative that seeks to respond to and prevent elder abuse through a collaboration of various agencies including Edmonton Police Service, City of Edmonton, Catholic Social Services, and Covenant Health.

"I'm trying to build relationships with the seniors because a lot of times, their first interaction with police in these cases can be overwhelming and intimidating sometimes," EPS Const. Heather Markland said.

She is one of six people on the team, which includes four social workers and one nurse.

Const. Heather Markland, with the Edmonton Police Service, is part of the Seniors Protection Partnership, a collaboration of various agencies that aims to prevent and respond to elder abuse. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Markland, who for seven years was an EPS domestic violence coordinator, has been with the partnership since May 2018 and said she believes its work is having an impact.

"People are now reporting more than they used to," she said. "Some of the barriers that come with these older adults is that in their generation, you didn't talk about domestic violence. You didn't talk about things that happened in your home. It stayed in your home.

"And I believe through the education and the supports that we are putting out there, these seniors are now feeling more comfortable to come forward and report this."

She said the public should be aware of changes in an older adult's behaviour — for example, if they become despondent or suddenly change their routine — and report it.

"Look out for those signs of things that might be different because sometimes seniors can become very isolated when they become victims of abuse," Markland says.

2 seniors' emergency shelters in Alberta

When an older adult decides to leave their abuser, few shelters in Alberta are able to cater to their specific needs. There are only two seniors' emergency shelters in the province. Sage is one of them.

Its seven suites are always full, Markham said.

Sometimes, Sage can find space for a client at Kerby Rotary Shelter in Calgary, the other seniors' emergency shelter in the province. Unfortunately, it's not an option if the client has medical appointments or other supports in Edmonton.

"So then we are kind of left with hopefully getting them into a hotel if they have the financial resources, or through emergency social services," Markham said. "But if that doesn't work, we're kind of stuck." 

Older victims can be more vulnerable: advocate

3 years ago
Duration 0:39
Michele Markham, manager of Sage Seniors' Safe House, says additional vulnerabilities can make it harder for older adults to flee domestic violence.

Sage's shelter has individual suites, not a common living space like many other shelters. Markham says this provides a more calm environment for the older adults, allows them to receive home care and medical appointments in private, and lets them focus on their own needs rather than act as a grandmother or grandfather to other younger clients.

The shelter works closely with both home-care organizations and a community geriatric-psychiatry team composed of psychiatrists, social workers, and other professionals. Some clients have dementia or mental-health concerns, she said.

People are only supposed to stay at the shelter for 60 days but often stay longer, with some remaining at the shelter for more than 100 days.

Despite the work of organizations like the charity Greater Edmonton Foundation Seniors Housing, a lack of safe, affordable housing remains a constant barrier, Markham said. Clients can wait six months to get into a seniors lodge, or a year to get into an assisted-living facility.

"We knew the baby boomers were coming," she said. "And yet we don't have those resources in place."

The public should remember that eventually, "we will be that demographic," Markham said.

"So if we're not taking care of the generation ahead of us, how can we expect the generation behind us to take care of us?"

If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area, visit sheltersafe.ca or http://endingviolencecanada.org/getting-help.


Jennie Russell

Former investigative reporter

Jennie Russell was a reporter with CBC Investigates, the investigative unit of CBC Edmonton, from 2012 until 2021. Russell specialized in accountability journalism. Her work has been widely credited with forcing transparency and democratic change in Alberta.