By Naunidhi Kaur, Womens Feature Service
Anwar Sheikh, 78, is not tall by any standards. The five feet two inches, bearded man appears even more stooped from signs of the emotional trauma he faces every day. He gets visibly angry when he tries to explain in broken English the situation he faces at home.
“Life has changed after the death of my wife,” he says. His wife and he used to stay together in a two-bedroom apartment in Scarborough, Ontario. Anwar, who was dependent on his wife, found it hard to manage on his own after her death. Her passing away was also an emotionally tough time for him. In the course of their 40-year-old marriage, the couple had made their way from faraway Bangladesh to Canada.
Still grieving the passing away of his wife and confused about the new situation in which he found himself, Anwar decided to move into the basement of the home of his younger daughter, Shazia, to escape a lonely, isolated life. But that did not turn out to be the solution he was seeking. It was the beginning of a nightmare. His daughter and son-in-law asked him to pay monthly rent of C$700 (US$1= C$1.10) that included money for meals. “I have no problem paying the rent but it is their attitude that I cannot deal with,” he says, teary eyed. “She gives me stale food to eat. If I feel cold I cannot change the room temperature. It is like I am not allowed to think like an adult. I have to happy with whatever comes my way.”
The emotional abuse that Anwar faces on a daily basis is characteristic of the elder abuse present in the society of today. In 2006, 6,033 incidents of violence were reported against seniors in 149 police stations representing 90 per cent of the population of Canada. Family members were accused in 34 per cent of these incidents. In family related violence, more than half (53 per cent) of both male and female victims experienced common assault, 20 per cent experienced threats and 14 per cent experienced major assault.
The study, conducted by Statistics Canada, the federal government’s statistics agency, also found that senior women are more likely to be abused by a family member and that they are more likely to be harmed by physical force.
Even the general population shares this perception, which became apparent when Human Resources and Skills Development, a government department, found that 67 per cent of Canadians felt “older women are more likely to be abused than older men.”
Peel Regional Police, Ontario, brought out an information brochure recently in which it gave practical tips to seniors to save them from abuse. It included suggestions like not opening the purse in public, being wary of a “nice” stranger, and not to donate to charities that are not registered. The police also advised seniors to put self protection as a priority.
However, physical abuse is only part of the picture. What goes unreported is the emotional and financial abuse. The Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organisation, classifies financial abuse (withholding money or committing fraud), psychological abuse (scolding and provoking fear) and neglect (with holding medical intervention, overmedicating) as some of the other common forms of abuse against seniors.
“Abuse is more psychological, financial, verbal and neglect. Many times families don’t even realise that they are treating seniors at home badly. They scream at them, make them feel useless without realising the extent of abuse,” says Lucia Ramos, community development worker in St Christopher House, a Toronto-based not-for-profit agency.
At St. Christopher House the seniors have taken matters into their own hands by raising awareness about Seniors’ Abuse. Health Action Theatre by Seniors (HATS) is a project run by the NGO in which a group of 22 volunteer seniors perform short skits to raise awareness on the issue. They use a few spoken words in their short skits to make it accessible to all communities. “The mime format transcends linguistic and cultural barriers,” says Ramos.
These performances are adapted from the Theatre of the Oppressed format, developed by the Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal, who promoted participatory theatre that emphasiases on problem solving.
The cast makes the plays more interactive by asking the audience to identify where and how abuse occurred in the skit they performed. The audience is encouraged to change how the players have dealt with an issue in their play, and to replace a player (actor) so that the skit can be performed once again with a different ending. “The seniors troupe performs at hospitals, schools, other community groups, neighbourhood associations wherever they can raise awareness,” reveals Ramos.
“We presented a skit to a large audience of Goan Association recently and after the performance some of the audience members realised that their attitude towards the seniors in their homes could be classified as abuse,” she says. This is a popular programme with the seniors, as it gives them a chance to take a leadership role and raise awareness about abuse.
Creating and spreading awareness about the problem is a big part of ending this form of abuse. However, the situation becomes more complicated for those elders who do not understand English. As it is the case with Anwar. He, incidentally, finally decided to move in his with second daughter. Even though she respects him and looks after him, he finds the living arrangement difficult because she stays with her in-laws. “I am applying for subsidised government housing,” he says. “It is hard for me to explain to the government here that for us Bangladeshis it is very difficult to stay in your daughter’s house especially when her in-laws are there,” he says.
Anwar and many like him suffer silently at the hands of their own near and dear ones, making the situation that much worse for them. Though there are avenues now for filing a complaint or talking about the issue, the very fact that these senior citizens have to complain against their own close relatives is heartbreaking for them.