Toronto elder abuse under-reported: advocate

A seniors advocate says she's "not really surprised" a 68-year-old woman was allegedly left to live in an uninsulated garage for months by her son and daughter-in-law. Elder abuse is a largely underreported issue, she says.

Couple charged in Toronto's latest case of alleged mistreatment

Kwong Yan and his wife Qi Tan were charged with failing to provide the necessities of life and with criminal negligence causing bodily harm. (Alex Tavshunsky/CBC)

A seniors advocate says she's "not really surprised" by allegations a 68-year-old woman with dementia was left alone in an uninsulated garage during the winter by her son and daughter-in-law.

The woman was taken to hospital on Friday, where she suffered a stroke and is now in serious condition. Medical staff told police the frostbitten, malnourished woman had likely been badly neglected for some time.

Kwong Yan, 43, and his wife Qi Tan, 28, were charged with failing to provide the necessities of life and with criminal negligence causing bodily harm. They made a brief appearance in court Tuesday via video link, were denied bail and remanded in custody until March 15.

David Hao, a lawyer who represented the couple at Tuesday's show-cause hearing, told CBC News even though the allegations "look bad,"  the son's main concern is about his mother's condition.

"They were quite distraught," said Hao. "They were mainly upset that their mother had become ill rather than their personal charges."

Helen Leung, the CEO of Care First Seniors and Community Services Association, said her group estimates that between four and seven per cent of seniors in the Asian community are victims of abuse. But the group believes elder abuse is under-reported, she said.

Rates of elder abuse within the Asian population are "not too far from mainstream studies," said Leung, whose group offers senior services to the Chinese community in the Toronto area.

The Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse estimates close to one in 10 seniors in the province is being abused by family members.

Elder abuse is a taboo topic among all groups, but particularly in the Chinese population, where reverence for elders is a prized value, she said.

Because of that, community members may not think of elder abuse as a big issue, Leung said.

Psychological abuse common: advocate

Within the Chinese community, psychological harassment is one of the more prevalent forms of abuse, Leung said.

"[Seniors] are being yelled at, and being called names … so that kind of emotional abuse is very common," she said.

Leung says educating seniors about their rights and empowering them can help them avoid abuse.

Her group has set up an abuse helpline, which seniors can call if they have concerns about how they are being treated. Her group also conducts outreach to seniors, particularly newcomers to Canada, who may be more socially isolated than the general population, she said.

The Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse has also set up a hotline for seniors, which it says is constantly busy during business hours.