When you think of domestic violence, the picture that initially comes to mind is probably not one of senior citizens. And yet, elder abuse is a reality for many in our city, and it is a complex and growing issue that targets vulnerabilities unique to seniors.

The official definition of elder abuse, according to the World Health Organization, is “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person.”

“…in 71 per cent of elder abuse cases, the perpetrator is a spouse, adult child, or caregiver. “
That “expectation of trust” can present itself in many different kinds of relationships, but in 71 per cent of elder abuse cases, the perpetrator is a spouse, adult child, or caregiver. Seniors are often particularly reliant on family members for support as they age, and this reliance can be easy to exploit and abuse.

There is no single group or demographic that is more prone to experiencing elder abuse—it is pervasive and can affect seniors of every background, socioeconomic status, or level of independence.

Nicole Dowling, program lead and elder abuse social worker at carya, explains that the changes in health and cognition that often occur later in life give seniors an extra level of vulnerability and can increase their risk of experiencing abuse. Once issues such as grief and loss, family history, and hopes and dreams for other family members are added to the mix, it’s easy to see how older adults can find themselves in a vulnerable situation.

Nicole has been a member of the Elder Abuse Response Team—a collaboration between carya, Calgary Police Service, and the Kerby Centre—for almost eight years. Throughout this time, she has seen an increase in both the number and complexity of elder abuse cases in Calgary. But one client in particular stands out in her mind.

Pamela* contacted carya when she wasn’t receiving the necessary support in the home she was sharing with other family members. She was also struggling to meet her basic needs.

Left to sleep on a mattress in the living room with little access to regular hot meals, Pamela found herself in a vulnerable and dangerous situation. She lacked access to her basic food needs, adequate support, and a safe place to sleep. Driven by a conviction that “as bare minimum we should be providing that for everybody,” Nicole and her team intervened to get Pamela the support she needed.

As the team at carya got to know Pamela better, she disclosed that she was also experiencing abuse at home. In fact, she was experiencing multiple forms of abuse—physical, emotional, verbal, and medical—something Nicole says is typical of elder abuse cases. In another common trait of elder abuse, the perpetrators were close family members—her adult daughter and grandson.

The team at carya contacted a shelter in Calgary to secure Pamela’s safety. What happened next is what made this such a special success for Nicole.

Within 72 hours of being relocated, Nicole received a letter from Pamela, personally thanking the team and community for responding and helping her secure a safe place to sleep and access to warm and nutritious food. The team’s kindness had truly made a lasting impression on her.

After moving to the shelter, Pamela began to thrive, working with the staff members to successfully secure a place to live independently and get the support she and her family needed.

Nicole still holds onto Pamela’s letter today, knowing that it’s a great reminder of the importance of the work she does, adding “that’s why you fight the fight.”


[ctt template=”7″ link=”Xpe9m” via=”no” ]Whether it’s a transformational story like Pamela’s or a smaller success like securing someone’s finances, Nicole’s team has helped hundreds of seniors in Calgary get the support they need through the Prevention of Elder Abuse Program.[/ctt]


Created in 2016, the program focuses on three main areas: educating professionals in the community, providing direct service to clients, and offering a professional consultation line. The program has supported over 200 families and helped educate around 1,000 people in the community. “People know there is a place they can receive support around sometimes what is considered to be quite grey work,” Nicole explains.

And the numbers speak for themselves. Nicole reports that 82 per cent of people surveyed who had been involved in the program said a social worker had helped them learn about the services available in their community, and 91 per cent said they had someone in their life who was not a paid professional they could turn to for help or advice.

Nicole credits the success of her team to the close collaboration between carya, Calgary Police Service, and the Kerby Centre. Based in the same office, the three partners are able to provide a quick turnover and respond to incidents with efficiency, skill, and compassion.

Nicole’s team has a number of creative and innovative ways to support victims of elder abuse and their families. From hospital referrals, mental health support, and home visits to liaising with other older adult service providers and giving presentations in the community, the Elder Abuse Response Team offers expert support outside the bounds of traditional policing.

So what can you do if you suspect someone you know is experiencing elder abuse? Nicole recommends three options. If the situation at home is unsafe, call 911 or the non-emergency line at 403-266-1234 to be referred to the Elder Abuse Response Team. You can also call the Kerby Centre’s Elder Abuse Response Line at 403-705-3250. Alternatively, speak to someone you trust, such as a family member or a professional in the community.

There is a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and support waiting to be tapped into in the community. Pamela’s story is proof of just how impactful that support can be.


* This name has been changed to protect the client’s identity.

United Way is proud to partner with carya to support change in the area of domestic violence. To find out more about United Way’s investments in this #UNIGNORABLE issue, please visit our website.