Saving Surrey’s seniors from abuse

There are plenty of local resources to help elderly residents who are victims of abuse and neglect

There’s help for elderly men and women who are mistreated and abused.

Sadly, it seems there is much of this about.

A National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (NICE) survey conducted in 2016 estimated that some 766,000 elderly Canadians had been abused during the year prior.

Abuse can be physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, and financially related. According to the City of Surrey’s Healthy Active Aging Guide 2019, one in 12 B.C. seniors have been “financially abused” involving amounts averaging more than $20,000.

Elderly abuse can also involve neglect, humiliation, intimidation, over-medication, withholding medicine or other necessities, denying access to visitors, censoring mail, and invasion of privacy.

Data from Statistics Canada reveals that elderly victims of family violence were most likely to be victimized by their own adult children. About four in 10 senior victims of police-reported family violence indicated that their abuser was their own grown child, while spouses were the second most likely source of abuse, at 28 per cent.

Statistics Canada projects that by 2021, an estimated 594,500 people will be residing in this city, and of those, 101,700 will be seniors (65 or older), making for 17.1 per cent.

Surrey RCMP Constable Sukh Chattha-Johal, of the detachment’s diversity division, is a 19-year veteran who does safety presentations for seniors. The police approach to investigating abuse of the elderly, she said, is “nothing different than any other crime that we would investigate.”

“Don’t be ashamed,” is her advice to seniors who believe they have, or are, being mistreated. “Recognize it and report it. There are several types of abuse, from financial – which is the most common – to physical abuse, to sexual abuse.”


Surrey RCMP Constable Sukh Chattha-Johal. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

Chattha-Johal noted that many elders are reluctant to talk about what’s happening to them “because of the repercussions,” or if a family member or trusted friend is the abuser.

“We are there to help,” she said. “Contact the non-emergency phone number (604-599-0502). If we don’t know about it, then we can’t help you. We have a lot of resources in place that can assist, but without that initial phone call from you there’s not much that we can do. So don’t be afraid, we’re here to help and we will treat it as a priority.”

Occurrences of elder abuse can also be reported through Crime Stoppers, which handles calls in 115 languages seven days a week, 24 hours each day, at 1-800-222-TIPS.

Surrey city Councillor Linda Annis, who is also the executive director of Crime Stoppers, noted that people tend to think of gangs, bank robberies and such when it comes to reporting crime but Crime Stoppers also get lots of tips about elder abuse, “sadly enough.”

“I really encourage anyone who knows anything about elders that are being abused to call us if they’re not comfortable to call elsewhere,” Annis advised, stressing that complaints can be made anonymously.

There are, of course, victims who are unable to speak up for themselves. This is where people like Davinder Minhas, of Community Living B.C., come in. She helps people with developmental disabilities, and investigates allegations of abuse or neglect involving people in their 50s and older.

“These individuals can’t always advocate for themselves. They can at times be non-verbal, so they can’t say ‘I’m being abused.’ It makes our work quite challenging to confirm, to understand what’s being alleged, how do we interview them, how do we speak to people who are accused, and what measures do we have to take,” Minhas said.

Sometimes service providers are investigated but if there are allegations of physical or sexual abuse, police always take the lead.

“In some cases it could be financial, where we might make a referral or consult with the public trustees,” Minhas said. “So, if there’s cases where there is abuse we may put protective measures in place. We may remove the individual from their home, we may put formal safeguards in place so they’re protect. If the police determine that they have no case and they’re not going to pursue it criminally, CLBC does not stop because we provide services. It is our role to make sure they are less at risk, even if it is unsubstantiated. Just to make sure the issue doesn’t arise again.”

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Leanne Lange, of the Fraser Health Authority, has for the past 12 years worked as a clinical specialist, focusing on adult abuse and neglect. She leads Fraser Health’s response to adult protection-related issues across the region, and advises staff at hospitals, community programs and residential care facility staff who are tasked with responding to the abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults.

Her region covers Burnaby to Boston Bar.

“I think it’s fair to say that we see the most cases of elder abuse,” Lange said, “by virtue of our population.”

Lange said Fraser Health has a legal mandate, under the Adult Guardianship Act, to respond to reports received concerning the abuse of people 19 and older. This also involves neglect, and self-neglect.

They are there, she said, to help those who are unable to seek out help on their own, either because they’re restrained, can’t leave where they are, or have a physical handicap that prevents them from reaching out for help.

“They also may have an illness, disease or condition that also affects their ability, cognitively, to get help,” she said.

This includes those with mental illness, brain injury, developmental disability, dementia.

“That’s our mandate to respond,” Lange said. “We will happily accept an anonymous report.”

“Probably the bulk of reports we get at Fraser Health are actually from our health-care providers who work across the system.” These are the social workers, nurses and doctors. “Even if people aren’t willing to report, or it’s unsafe for them, we do have a system that if people come to our attention we can respond.”

Sometimes, she noted, FHA gets unsubstantiated reports. “We have a mandate that we must report criminal offences to the police in the event that they come to our attention for adults who are unable to get help on their own, and an important thing is we never identify people who make reports to us. If they do call, feel safe that we’re not going out and saying, ‘Oh, by the way, your neighbour called because they’re concerned.’”

“In most cases we’re able to enter, intervene, offer support for people that accept it. There’s the rare occasion that we actually have to look at some legal tools that are available in the legislation to ask a judge to review the need – sometimes we can’t access people in their homes because they’re being blocked, generally by a third party abusing them, and sometimes we have to in a very urgent life-threatening situation enter and remove people and get them to a safe place to preserve their life or prevent them from being seriously harmed.

“Alternately, sometimes people come to the hospital and they’ve been significantly abused and neglected and we need to take steps on an emergency basis to involuntarily admit them while we actually conduct our investigation because it’s so unsafe they can’t leave,” Lange said.

Surrey Fire Service has taken a pro-active approach to helping seniors at risk.

Assistant Fire Chief Shelley Morris noted that the senior population is more at-risk for house fires. “Seniors represent, in varying degrees in different municipalities, sometimes 70 per cent of the population, over-represented in the death and injury rate,” she said. “Our senior population is more vulnerable than the rest.”

The fire department has a smoke alarm campaign for seniors. “Over time people just forget that they have that smoke alarm and it just may no longer work.”

During the course of their regular work, Morris said, in 2010 Surrey firefighters recognized “an opportunity” to combat elderly abuse.


Surrey Assistant Fire Chief Shelley Morris. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

“We were already in the homes. We went to people’s homes before they had the chance to really hide anything from us. That is a real unique perspective that the fire service has. So even though we’re there for a call for service we can see things that other people don’t see, and we get to report it.”

She said firefighters, when responding to house calls, have an opportunity to observe what’s going on inside the household.

“They can see signs of neglect, they can see signs that that senior is not thriving in the environment that they’re in,” she said. “They may have gone there multiple times and they know that, because they’re the same crews that go to the same people. So we get to report that to Fraser Health and say, ‘This person isn’t able to thrive – they need help, they need support – and we can provide and link them to those resources that they very desperately need.”

Morris told a recent forum at City Hall dedicated to the care and safety of senior citizens that the Surrey Fire Service has been putting posters up in all the city’s fire halls about elderly abuse.

“We’re highlighting that right now so our crews, it’s always foremost in their mind,” she explained. “We go to these homes during these critical interventions, we sometimes, overtime, we forget that we’re looking for other things while we’re there as well.”

Meantime, Louise Trembley, of the BC Community Response Network, works with various agencies throughout B.C. – more than 150 of them – to provide resources, and create awareness about abuse and neglect.

“Try not to vilify the person who does the abusing, because quite often they need help themselves,” she advised. “They may be the caregiver, and they may be getting ill; they may be very tired. They may not even realize that their behaviour is impacting the other person in a negative way.”

Trembley said that when she does presentations, she like to impart to people “the fact that we all have the capacity to be the abuser.

“Quite often people say, ‘What, me?’ I say, well, if I have a crowd in front of me, I’ll say, ‘Raise your hand if you’ve never given the silent treatment to someone.’ And as you would guess, not one hand goes up. People look at me all surprised. Well, it is a form of abuse – it may be not the worst form of abuse, but it is a form of abuse.”

“Any effort to try to prevent abuse and neglect and to educate people, any little effort, will amount to a big thing. Together we can combat abuse and neglect,” Trembley said.

Here are some local resources for the elderly:

• Senior First BC: 604-688-1927, or

• BC Seniors Abuse and Information Line (SAIL): 1.866-437-1940

• Seniors Connectors Come Share Information and Support Line: 604-531-9400 or

• Information Referral to Community, Social and Government Services: 2-1-1. This is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week service with language translation available

• Fraser Health Crisis Line: 604-951-8855

• Seniors’ Distress Line: 604-872-1234

• Victim Services: 604-599-7600

• VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808 (For deaf or hard-of-hearing callers, 604-875-0885).

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