What is Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is the mistreatment of an older person.

It covers a wide range of actions and experiences. Abuse can be physical, psychological, sexual, or financial. It can involve isolating a senior and preventing the person from sustaining important social relationships, denying privacy rights and taking the person’s mail, or overmedicating for purposes of control.

Neglect of an older person who is dependent on others is another form of abuse.

An older adult may experience several types of abuse in the context of a relationship. Most cases of elder abuse, neglect, and ageism are perpetrated by someone who is known to the older person, such as a family member, friend, caregiver, or health care provider.

But sometimes older adults are the target of strangers such as con artists.

Financial Abuse

Financial elder abuse, one of the most commonly reported forms of elder abuse in Canada, is the illegal or improper use of money, assets, possessions, property, and legal documents. That type of abuse could include the following: 

  • Stealing money
  • Coercing an older adult to open a joint bank account
  • Selling or transferring property without permission
  • Misusing the older adult’s home
  • Misusing substitute decision making powers under a Power of Attorney, Representation Agreement, Trust, or Guardianship
  • Applying undue influence to coerce the adult to make unwanted decisions or sign documents

Responding to Elder Abuse

What help can be provided to an older adult who is being abused or neglected depends on the adult’s capacity and the level of danger the older adult is in.

If the adult is in immediate danger, call 911.

In BC there is no requirement for the general public to report abuse or neglect of an older person. BC’s adult protection legislation, the Adult Guardianship Act, allows anyone to report suspected abuse or neglect of any type. Reports can be made to the local Designated Agency. (Listed below.)

Suspected financial abuse, including misuse of substitute decision-making authority, can be reported to the Public Guardian and Trustee (PGT). 

A Designated Agency or the PGT can take action to help an adult if the adult does not have decision-making capacity or the adult has a disability that would prevent the person from obtaining help. An adult who has decision-making capacity has the right to choose whether the adult accepts help and can choose to live at risk.

For example, an older person can choose to open a shared bank account with their adult child even if that is a financially risky option, as long as the adult understands the risks, such as the other person may be able to drain the account without the adult’s knowledge or permission.

If an older person is being abused or neglected and does not have capacity, a Designated Agency can take various actions to help the older adult:

  • Refer the older adult to community services.
  • Help the older adult get support from family members—if that is safe.
  • Apply to the Court to have a substitute decision-maker appointed.
  • Apply to the Court for protective orders.
  • Create a support and assistance plan to obtain services for the older adult.
  • In emergencies, apply for an emergency order to remove the adult from imminent danger and provide services. 

If the older adult has decision-making capacity and does not have a disability that would prevent the adult from seeking support or assistance, no actions can be taken if the adult refuses help. You may still be able to connect the adult to helpful services, however.

Other Options for Help

If the adult can seek assistance, different kinds of support may be available in the community. Even if an adult appreciates that a relationship is abusive, it may take time for the adult to make changes that enhance the person’s safety and well-being. Financial abuse is often linked to emotional or psychological abuse; the adult may welcome counseling or emotional support from a person the adult trusts.

You can help people who are experiencing abuse by doing the following: 

  • Identifying where they can get legal information and advice, such as Seniors Abuse and Information Line (SAIL). 
  • Helping them access counseling and safety planning assistance through SAIL, Victim Link (victim services), or a community agency, like Women Against Violence Against Women. 
  • Connecting them with a Senior’s Centre or Neighbourhood House if they are lonely or socially isolated. 
  • Supporting them to access services like home support or more suitable housing. 

Often the person who is financially abusing an older person is reliant on the older por substance-use issues. Helping the older person find support for the dependent family member can be a practical first step. Seniors will often live in dangerous situations to make sure the people they love are safe—even if that person is hurting them.

If you are not sure how you can help, you or a concerned family member or friend can get information from a local Community Response Network. The BC Association of Community Response Networks can identify the network contact in your community.

Elder abuse may not always rise to the level of a criminal offense. Something may be happening to an older adult that is wrong, but cannot be addressed through criminal or civil remedies. Older adults may not want to launch criminal action against the abuser, as the abuser may be a loved family member.

Practical Next Steps

Apart from criminal charges or adult protection processes, there are practical options you may want to suggest or support, including the following: 

  • Revoking a Power of Attorney or Representation Agreement
  • Challenging a health care decision
  • Addressing concerns about immigration status, including whether the sponsor is the abuser
  • Gaining copies of identification or financial records
  • Applying for financial assistance or pensions
  • Applying for a civil protection order or a criminal peace bond

If you cannot provide the assistance yourself, an informed referral to a lawyer or other professional can be very helpful. Often people who are experiencing abuse feel overwhelmed. They may appreciate help explaining their situation to a trained legal professional.

Undue Influence

Legal professionals need to be adept at recognizing undue influence that occurs when an individual threatens or coerces the older adult to do something the adult does not wish to do. That could include changing a Will, giving someone decisionmaking powers, giving away property, or taking out a loan. See the BC Law Institute’s Undue Influence Reference Aid (listed below) for signs of undue influence that you should watch out for.

To Legal Professionals

If you suspect someone may be influencing an older adult to change a Will or make other financial or legal decisions, consider the following practice suggestions: 

  • Interview the older adult alone.
  • Ask open-ended questions to investigate the older adult’s wishes.
  • Explore if the older adult is in a relationship of dependence or trust.
  • Explore if the older adult is being abused or neglected. 
  • Consider whether the older adult has the decision-making capacity to make a Will or transfer property.
  • Keep detailed notes of your interactions, any red flags, the circumstances, and your conclusions.


Sara Pon is a Canadian Centre for Elder Law Legal Research Assistant.

Posted in Personal Planning