“My aunt Betty is elderly and lives by herself in White Rock. I see her from time to time but I live in the Okanagan. The last time I visited she didn’t seem to be taking care of herself very well; there wasn’t much food in the house, her clothes were dirty and the house was unkempt. There is also a gardener who seems to be spending a lot of time at the house and I think she may be giving him money. I’m worried she is being taken advantage of. What can I do to help? Thank you.” Anna (not a real character).
Does Anna’s concern resonate with you? If so, read on.
The observations Anna made during her recent visit with her aunt, Betty, could be signs that she is somewhere on the continuum of experiencing abuse, neglect and self-neglect. Anna’s comments indicate that wearing dirty clothes, having messy surroundings and lacking food are out of character for her aunt. Anna’s observations compounded with the fact that the gardener seems to hang out at her aunt’s house give her concern that something is not right. She is worried about her and wonders how she can help.
First of all, it’s a good thing that Anna is trying to help, because all too often people look the other way when they suspect abuse. That being said, the best way to help is to be with the person as opposed to fixing the problem or avoiding it altogether. How does she achieve this balance?
Now that Anna has observed what could be the signs of abuse and self-neglect and doesn’t feel right about it, the next step is to check her assumptions with her aunt in a caring and non-judgemental manner. She should pick a time when Betty is alone to call or visit her and engage her in conversation. She could ask, “Auntie, you don’t seem yourself lately, is everything okay?” and wait for the answer. If Betty doesn’t have one, Anna should not force the issue. If her aunt discloses, Anna should lend her support and withhold judgement. Either way, Anna has already made a difference by eliciting a self-reflecting process.
Anna needs to be careful though. This conversation can be tricky because if Betty perceives her to be judgemental, she might shut down and get into protective mode to preserve her relationship with her gardener friend or conceal some health issues, which would be counterproductive.
Further, it’s important to remember that, assuming they have the cognitive capacity, adults have the right to live at risk. It’s difficult to witness someone we care about make bad decisions, but adults can choose for themselves. It’s hard, but Anna should think about the consequences of trying to protect her aunt by taking control of her life. That in itself would constitute abuse.
On the other hand, if Anna suspects that her aunt is experiencing diminishing capacities or physical restraints, she should contact Fraser Health at 1-866-437-1940; or if she thinks Betty is in imminent danger, she needs to call 911.
Under part III of the Adult Guardianship Act, the Health Authority and Community Living BC are the designated agencies responsible to investigate reports of abuse, neglect and self-neglect. Representatives of these agencies have the skills and tools to investigate reports and can take the necessary steps to provide assistance.
Abuse, neglect and self-neglect are very complex issues that depend on the individuals and how they relate to their environment. It’s a good idea for Anna to leave the solution to the professionals. A good way to get involved is by being with her aunt.
By Louise Tremblay, The Semiahmoo Foundation