The important role that Elders play in Cree culture – as respected knowledge keepers of language, experiences and traditions – is well known. Less known is that many of these Elders are at risk of being harmed physically, emotionally or financially by someone they trust.
As communities and nations across the globe marked June 15 as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Grand Chief Abel Bosum issued a proclamation to recognize the significance of this issue in Eeyou Istchee.
“Elders and vulnerable adults deserve to be treated with respect and dignity to enable them to serve as leaders, mentors, volunteers and vital participating members of our communities,” stated Bosum. “The Cree Nation is committed to taking measures to eradicate and prevent the abuse of our Elders.”
The United Nations commemorated the day to draw attention to this global problem, which is often underestimated and ignored. The Canadian government estimates that only one in five cases are ever reported, partly due to the stigma associated with the issue.
“It’s not an easy topic to discuss if you’re vulnerable, being abused by someone you trust and care about,” said Brenda House, who became the Cree Health Board’s Elder Abuse specialist last September. “It could be the Elder’s only contact to their grandchildren or their sole dependent. Some people won’t even be aware that they’re going through Elder abuse, so when people start talking about it, they might realize this is happening to me.”
Elder abuse can take numerous forms, including humiliation, manipulation, emotional blackmail and force-feeding. Denying social rights and freedoms or failing to provide reasonable comfort and safety are also considered abuse. However, the most reported form of abuse is financial.
“Financial exploitation is definitely what I hear most often,” House told the Nation. “People taking advantage of the Elder’s debit card or bank account, co-signing a loan and then the Elder is financially responsible.”
House believes spreading awareness about this issue goes beyond preventing abuse – it’s also to initiate wider discussions about aging well. Planning to establish wills and power of attorney – who will make decisions about your health and property – can provide peace of mind as we transition into our golden years, particularly for those with a family history of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
The construction delay of Elders’ homes in Waskaganish, Mistissini and Chisasibi due to pandemic precautionary measures means that specialized services in these regional hubs will have to wait until summer or fall of 2022. The homes will alleviate the need for Elders to live in long-term facilities in the south, where three Cree have already died of Covid-19.
“Having the new Elders’ homes in the future will definitely alleviate pressures from caregivers,” House added. “Caregivers are under a lot of pressure. There are challenges of illness or physical decline, early onset of dementia. The stress of that can be a contributing factor to abuse.”
Although Elder abuse is a global phenomenon, Eeyou Ischee and other First Nations face unique challenges related to overcrowding, past trauma and alcohol or substance abuse. These contributing factors must be taken into consideration when developing intervention procedures. Bosum’s proclamation also named social isolation and ageism as major causes.
“It’s an emotional subject linked with trauma that the community has experienced,” asserted Maude Ostiguy-Lauzon, Elder Wellness Coordinator for the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Services Commission. “Speaking about that in the community is the first step to raising awareness. Elders are not necessarily aware of their rights, how to protect [themselves] and the right to say no.”
By establishing secure spaces with appropriate services, Elders could speak more openly about their situations and work collaboratively towards a solution to abuse. This kind of restorative justice approach mitigates punitive measures by involving both the victim and the accused in healing circles.
“Elder mistreatment could be unintentional because the person does not express how they are feeling,” Ostiguy-Lauzon said. “If the community put some resources for them to heal, Elders can speak more about their emotions and put their own limits. If they can’t count on their families, they will have other community services to answer their needs.”
Several initiatives are currently being implemented in Eeyou Istchee to help answer this call, including abuse assessment and detection tools for frontline workers. A policy regarding the mistreatment of vulnerable adults is also in the process of being approved by the Cree Health Board.
Since House assumed her current role, she has been meeting with community workers and various organizations that work with Elders, such as the Chisasibi Elder Council and the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee. She is in the process of forming a regional committee consisting of key representatives that provide services responding to the impacts of Elder abuse.
“Working with these different organizations is an important part of a coordinated community response, which is necessary because each situation is so unique that there isn’t one way to handle it,” House said.
Although Covid-19 disrupted plans to create a bigger campaign around Elder Abuse Awareness Day, the pandemic has expedited efforts in other ways. To help counter pandemic-related mental health issues, psychosocial leads were swiftly established in each community – an idea that will be leveraged to address Elder abuse.
“As a result of Covid, we had to put things in place really quickly,” House explained. “It led us to think about why we don’t have an Elder abuse lead in each of the communities. We’re just working on the transition plan now.”
Anyone in Eeyou Istchee who wishes to share their thoughts or ask advice about Elder abuse are encouraged to call this confidential helpline: 1-833-632-4357 (HELP).