Josephine Pon, Alberta’s seniors and housing minister, unveiled a new five-year strategy to combat elder abuse last Tuesday.

The document, A Collective Approach: Alberta’s strategy for preventing and addressing elder abuse, is the province’s first new approach to the problem in 10 years. 

The strategy outlines opportunities to collaborate with community organizations, front-line workers, law enforcement, and the federal government. It identifies five goals:

• Improved awareness about what elder abuse is and how to prevent, identify and address it.

• Training for skilled service providers, including customized training for Indigenous communities, health professionals and housing providers.

• Coordinated community responses where communities and partners coordinate effectively to address elder abuse.

• Protective laws and policies to protect seniors and uphold their rights.

• Enhanced data, information sharing, research and evaluation to support strong policy and program responses, including awareness, prevention, early intervention and monitoring.

Through a news release, Pon said, “Our seniors deserve to be cherished and respected members of the community. Sadly, this is not always the case. All Albertans need to work together to stop elder abuse. Our new provincial strategy will help all of us recognize the signs of abuse and understand what action we can take to stop and report it.”

Shantel Ottenbreit, chair of the Alberta Elder Abuse Awareness Council, told Respect she sees the new strategy as a step forward. She said the data collection and evaluation piece is a key part of the overall plan. “That will allow for some accountability and some ability to get a clearer picture of what’s actually occurring, what strides are being made, where we could do better, etc,” she said.

“That’s been always the challenge in any family violence area is that the numbers tend to be underreported. And in the elder abuse area, the challenge is that we don’t have a lot of specific elder abuse services.”

Until 2020, when the council received funding to be able to fund out to communities, Ottenbreit said there were not many frontline services. “There was a few in larger centres, but in many of our rural settings and on reserves, there hasn’t been elder abuse-specific resources,” she said. 

“So when you go to collect data, do you collect it from police services, do you collect it from women’s shelters, do you collect it from other family violence organizations? And how do you pull or extrapolate just the elder abuse piece as opposed to all the information they’re collecting?”

She said the gathering of data and the ability to share across ministry lines—with Alberta Justice or Alberta Health, for example—may enable agencies to get a more accurate picture of the elder abuse situation in the province.

Information and awareness need to reach families and individuals, not just government and community agencies, she said. This includes potential victims of abuse as well as the people in their lives.

There can be service gaps especially in rural and remote areas, where Ottenbreit says isolation can be even more pronounced than in larger centres.

“What we know about elder abuse is that isolation is one of the risk factors, as well as an indicator,” she said. “When people are isolated and don’t have access to those services, and don’t have people around who might be seeing that they’re that much more at risk, the abuse that’s going on can continue that much more. So the key is engaging more services, and having the ability to do that under this new strategy is one of the goals.”

Ottenbreit said teaching school-age children about elder abuse, much as they are taught about fire safety, can help create a generation with greater appreciation of the problem.

“If we teach kids about what to be watching for and what’s not right and how we treat and don’t treat older adults, I think they can help to keep us accountable,” she said. “And they can also help encourage a new wave of people who understand ageism and won’t let that stand in our society.”

The five-year timeline is appropriate for the strategy, she said—it’s short enough that the work won’t immediately become obsolete, and it focuses governments’ and community agencies’ work on achieving the goals and objectives.

There was no new funding announcement accompanying the strategy. According to Ottenbreit, that will have to follow.

“I do think that there’s going to need to be some dollars tied to it,” she said. “So I guess we wait to hear from government what that might look like. But we are hopeful that they will have considered that as part of building the strategy, that they also have considered funding to go along with it to make sure that they can be successful at these goals.

“It will take some dollars to be able to do some of this work. Things don’t just happen for free, unfortunately.”