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Aboriginal Elder Abuse
Elder abuse is a catch-all phrase that refers to a variety of ways by which caregivers and other people in power-positions relative to the elderly can mistreat them. Elder abuse includes, but is not limited to: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse financial abuse, abandonment and neglect. Elders refer to seniors, though the definition of senior can be fluid. In the general populations, seniors are generally those age 65 and older, but because of differential life expectancies and cultural differences, some researchers refer to elders in the aboriginal community as those aged 55 and older (Dumont-Smith, 2002). Abandonment is "abuse that occurs when the person who assumes the responsibility for providing care or who has physical custody abandons his or her duties to the elder" (Dumont-Smith, 2002). Physical abuse is "the use of physical force that can result in injury, pain and/or impairment" (Dumont-Smith, 2002). Emotional abuse refers to "activities that cause anguish, pain or distress through verbal or nonverbal acts, which could include: verbal assault, social isolation, threats, humiliation, treating an elder like a child, lack of affection or denying seniors the chance to participate in decisions with respect to their own lives" (Dumont-Smith, 2002). "Financial abuse refers to the illegal or improper use of an elder person's money, property or other assets" (Dumont-Smith, 2002). "Sexual abuse occurs as the result of any non-consensual sexual contact of any kind with an elder (Dumont-Smith, 2002). Neglect can result in any of the above-mentioned types of abuse, and generally refers to a "refusal or failure to provide the elder person with the basic necessities of life" (Dumont-Smith, 2002). Finally, spiritual abuse, which is particularly relevant when discussing an aboriginal population, is the breakdown of a person's cultural or religious belief systems (Dumont-Smith, 2002).
Elder abuse is a complex phenomenon that does not have a simple cause or a simple solution. There is no single cause for elder abuse; instead, there are a variety of risk factors that increase the chances that elder abuse will occur including: "the personality traits of the abuser, intergenerational violence, and degree of dependency, stress and ageism" (Dumont-Smith, 2002). There is some suggestion that as the elder becomes increasingly dependent upon the caregiver, the stress on the caregiver increases, which increases the likelihood of abuse. This may be a particular risk in aboriginal societies because of the impact of colonization on those societies; colonization led to the erosion of traditional community support networks and failed to replace those networks, leaving caregivers vulnerable (Dumon-Smith, 2002). Moreover, colonization challenged traditional notions about the role of the elderly in native populations, which deprived many of the elderly of their traditional roles (Native Women's Association of Canada, 2013). Furthermore, the various governmental and institutional-level abuses that have committed against native populations in the name of social welfare programs have led aboriginal communities to be wary of intervention and research from outside organizations (Native Women's Association of Canada, 2013). The result is that very little is actually known about native elder abuse in Canada. This lack of knowledge has two consequences: "first, we have no idea of the size and nature of the problem of abuse and neglect in the community or in institutions; second, we do not know how to solve these problems or their attendant issues that have been masked by rhetoric and the recycling of information for the past 20 years" (McDonald, 2011).
The most relevant decolonization strategy may be to challenge the notion of what is family, which is intrinsically tied to the idea of who is placed in a caregiving position for seniors. Prior to colonization, most first nations had matrilineal and matriarchal family systems, which gave greater power and authority to women in the families. While this may not have lessened the actual burden associated with caring for an aging family member, it may have lessened the perceived burden, since age was considered as source of wisdom. Furthermore, in some ways it may have lessened the actual burden because, as a community, the elderly were seen as contributing to the group, as a whole, rather than simply being a drain on resources.
However, while changing the notion of family may seem to be a simple strategy, it is actually very difficult. There are established systemic barriers that work against the idea of redefining family and the legal importance of kinship relationships, even in communities that may already be working to redefine the social importance of those same kinship relationships. "The disentitling of indigenous women from governance, accomplished, in part, by the fraternal links created between indigenous and colonial men in these policies, divided indigenous kinship relations along hierarchical gender lines and led the way for the implementation of patriarchy and regulation of 'the aboriginal family' on a European bourgeois model" (Emberley, 2007).
Social Justice Approaches
There are a number of enduring vestiges of colonialism that continue to impact modern-day aboriginal people. Perhaps the most significant of those is poverty. "The roots of poverty for Aboriginal communities can be traced back to the forced relocation of Aboriginal peoples" into a reservation system which went against a cultural tradition of far-roaming hunter/gathering and larger-scale agricultural uses (Centre for Social Justice, 2013). Even when Aboriginals emerged from the Reserve system, they met with economic difficulties in city situations, so that the majority Aboriginal people continue to struggle with poverty (Centre for Social Justice, 2013). This poverty can only enhance social stressors that may contribute to elder abuse, because it means limited family financial resources for caretaking, as well as limited time resources. In addition, limited financial resources mean that problems typically faced by seniors, such as health challenges, may become chronic issues. One social justice approach to the problem of elder abuse in Aboriginal communities would be to help eradicate poverty in First Nation communities. Obviously, eradicating poverty on a community level is a daunting challenge, but increasing subsidies to Aboriginal elders who are below the poverty line can reduce overall financial stress, reducing the risk for elder abuse.
Another specific issue to consider is that, currently, Canada is experiencing what many refer to as a fourth-wave of colonization. This fourth wave is "a medical wave, made up of professional caregivers, treatment centres, and others which encourage and provide so-called healing, based on the view of Aboriginal peoples as 'sick'" (Thira, 2006). Therefore, it is important to look at the issue of elder abuse holistically and ensure that care that differs from European-style elder care is not automatically categorized as abusive. This is probably most relevant when viewed from the context of neglect, particularly medical neglect. Many aboriginal people believe in traditional medicine, and may resort to traditional means rather than Western medical interventions. If these treatments are in line with the senior's spiritual and cultural beliefs, then it is not neglect for the caregiver to pursue those remedies, even to the exclusion of Western remedies. Therefore, it is important to examine how abuse is defined and determine whether cultural behavioral norms influence what one considers abuse. Moreover, it is critical to examine the fact that the cultural bias can have a dual impact; non-Aboriginals may have lower standards of care for Aboriginal people, believing them to somehow be inferior to and less deserving than those of European descent.
The traditional aboriginal approach to aging was that older people were considered a source of wisdom. There is some confusion about the notion of what it means to be an Elder, because not all seniors would have been Elders or would be considered Elders at this point in time. However, the idea has been that community Elders are generally older people who receive a high degree of respect in Aboriginal communities. This approach to those who are older, at least select members of that group, suggest a higher degree of respect, which one would anticipate would correlate with lower levels of senior abuse. However, historical information about elder abuse in Aboriginal communities is not available to help substantiate those beliefs.
In much of Canadian society, health workers have had the primary responsibility of detecting and reporting elder abuse. However, this approach is not well-suited for many indigenous people because their contact with healthcare workers may be sporadic and they may not form long-term relationships with healthcare workers that would enable them to help detect abuse or neglect. However, one of the main barriers to ending the practice of elder abuse in Aboriginal communities has been a lack of awareness and education about what elder abuse is in those communities. Community education efforts help inform people about what types of behavior constitute abuse, how to spot abuse, and also some coping techniques to help minimize the likelihood of abuse. The Grandmother Spirit initiative, which is aimed at increasing awareness and reporting of elder abuse, is one of these community-based initiatives.
It is impossible to look at any single isolated social welfare issue in Aboriginal communities…
Centre for Social Justice. (2013). Aboriginal issues. Retrieved April 8, 2013 from the Centre
for Social Justice website: http://www.socialjustice.org/index.php?page=aboriginal-issues
Dumont-Smith, C. (2002). Aboriginal elder abuse in Canada. Retrieved April 8, 2013 from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation website: http://www.ahf.ca/downloads/ahfresearchelderabuse_eng.pdf.
Emberley, J. (2007). Defamiliarizing the aboriginal: Cultural practices and decolonizing in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
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