Crime and Abuse Against Seniors:
A Review of the Research Literature With Special Reference to the Canadian Situation


4.1 Prevalence and Incidence of Criminal Victimization and Abuse Against Seniors

Due to its size and its rigorous sampling methodology, the GSS is likely the most authoritative Canadian source on the prevalence of criminal victimization experienced by seniors. The 2004 survey indicated that one in ten seniors reported being victims of crime over the previous year (Table 4.1). The majority of these were victims of personal property and household crimes, while slightly more than one in 100 Canadian seniors were victims of violent crime.

No other Canadian data source we have identified provides prevalence figures for criminal victimization for the previous year. However, a study conducted by Podnieks and her associates (1990)—the only national survey dedicated to the subject of elder abuse—revealed that more than one percent of seniors indicated that they had experienced verbal abuse ten or more times a year. Just under one-half of one percent reported being neglected ten or more times in the previous year and one-half of one percent reported that they had been physically abused in the previous year. This last figure is reasonably consistent with the GSS' one percent figure for violent victimization. The discrepancy may, in part, be accounted for by distinctions made by respondents between violent crime and physical abuse.

While the UCR2 provides information on crime incidents, rather than the prevalence of victimization, certain inferences can be drawn from the finding that, in 2006, there were 149 police-reported violent crime incidents per 100,000 seniors. As about half of all violent crimes are reported to the police (Table 4.3 below), one might infer from the UCR2 database that there are approximately 300 reported and unreported violent incidents per 100,000 seniors. Some of the victims have undoubtedly experienced more than one incident of violence; therefore, the number of victims is less (by an unknown figure) than 300 per 100,000. Even at this figure, the UCR indicates that .3 percent (300/100,000) of seniors are victims of violence, about a quarter of the figure provided by the GSS.

Further research and analysis must probe the reasons for this discrepancy between these two key data sources. Statistics Canada does acknowledge that the UCR2 does not cover all jurisdictions in Canada. Hence, it is possible that the jurisdictions covered are not representative of the entire country. It may also be the case that the elderly find it easier to disclose violent incidents to government researchers than to police. Other research has, in fact, suggested that seniors are especially reluctant to disclose crimes to anyone (Gabor and Mata, 2004). This issue needs further exploration.

The 2004 GSS and EKOS' 2007 surveys are quite close in relation to their estimates regarding the prevalence of property crime victimization (Ogrodnick, 2007; McDonald, 2007). While their breakdowns of property crimes differ, both place the prevalence of property crime victimization at just above or below ten percent for the previous year.

Table 4.1 shows that two national studies have explored the prevalence of elder abuse during the respondent's lifetime as a senior (Environics Research Group, 2008; Podnieks et al., 1990). These studies show that about 4 5 percent of seniors reported experiencing some form of abuse from the age of 65 on. Environics' study showed that verbal/psychological abuse and financial abuse affected about an equal number of seniors (1%). The survey by Podnieks and her associates found financial abuse to be the dominant form of abuse affecting seniors (2.5 %). A small British Columbia survey conducted by Spencer (1998) found financial abuse to be far more prevalent than these other two surveys, reportedly affecting close to 10 percent of seniors, although this may be a less authoritative and generalizable study due to its modest size, local scope, and the sampling methodology utilized.

Table 4.1 Prevalence and Incidence of Crime and Abuse Aimed at Seniors

Source Sample Crime Victim Last 12 Months Victimization As a Senior Violent Crime Victim Last
12 Months
Property Crime Victim Last
12 Months
Abuse Victim Last 12 Months
15 yrs. and over
10%   1.2% 9% Personal prop.
8.7% of Senior households
Data collected by 149 police forces     149 incidents per 100,000 seniors    
EKOS (2007) 1,505
55 yrs.+
      6% Property theft
5% Fraud
Environics Research Group (2008) 3,001
18 yrs.
  5% All forms
1% Verb. /Psyc.
1% Financial
<1% Neglect
Podnieks et al. (1990) 2,008
65 yrs.+ living in private homes
  4% All forms of abuse
2.5% Financial abuse
    1.4% Verbal (10+ times/yr)
.4% Neglect (10+ times/year)
.5% Physical
Spencer (1998) 200 65 yrs.+ (British Columbia only)   8% Financial      

Sources: L. Ogrodnick (2007) Seniors As Victims of Crime 2004 and 2005. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics; L. Ogrodnick (2008) Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile. Ottawa: Statistics Canada; S. McDonald (2007) Seniors and Mass Marketing Fraud: Executive Summary (Ekos Research Survey). Ottawa: Department of Justice Canada; Environics Research Group (2008) Awareness and Perceptions of Canadians Toward Elder Abuse. Ottawa: Human Resources and Social Development Canada; Podnieks, E., Pillemer, K., Nicholson, J. P., Shillington, T., & Frizell, A. F. (1990). National Survey on Abuse of the Elderly in Canada. Toronto, ON: Ryerson Polytechnical Institute; C. Spencer (1998) Diminishing Returns: An Examination of Financial Abuse of Older Adults in British Columbia. Vancouver: Gerontology Research Centre, Simon Fraser University.

There are also perceptual studies that provide no prevalence data, but indicate the frequency of violence and abuse against seniors relative to other segments of the population. For example, EKOS (2002:41) asked Canadians about incidents of family violence about which they were aware. Spousal violence, violence toward children, and violence toward parents were far more likely to be mentioned than was violence toward the elderly. It is assumed that when mentioning spousal violence and violence toward parents, respondents were referring to non-seniors.

In another survey, a sample of 3,001 Canadians (including 718 seniors) and 20 front-line professionals or community intervenors were questioned about their awareness and perceptions of elder abuse (Environics Research Group, 2008). These perceptions are illuminating as they are often based on personal experiences. Canadians as a whole viewed neglect, followed by emotional and financial abuse, as the most common forms of elder abuse across the country. Most of the professionals working with seniors' issues mentioned financial abuse as the most common form of abuse, while others mentioned psychological abuse as the most common. More than one-fifth of Canadians mentioned a specific case of a senior who they thought may be experiencing abuse. These respondents most often stated that the abuser and victim were members of the same family and that the abuse occurring was mostly psychological/emotional. One in ten Canadians also reported that they had sought out information or help about a situation involving suspected or actual abuse. Financial, psychological, and physical abuse, as well as neglect, were the forms of abuse in the situation mentioned by respondents. These perceptions are in line with the findings of research displayed in Table 4.1 regarding the predominance of financial and psychological abuse.

Table 4.2 shows that seniors are less likely to report being victims of crime or abuse than non-seniors, across a wide spectrum of crimes. Overall, according to the GSS, non-seniors reported that they were three times as likely as seniors to be victims of crime over the previous year (Ogrodnick, 2007). Non-seniors were also twice as likely to report that they were victims of spousal assault in the previous year and considerably more likely to report that they experienced emotional or financial abuse from a spouse over the previous five years (Ogrodnick, 2007). Seniors were also less likely to be homicide victims than members of other age categories. For example, those in the 15 24 age bracket were three times as likely to be homicide victims. It was interesting, however, that weapons were as likely to be used in violent crimes against seniors as in offences against the remainder of the population. Perhaps another counterintuitive observation was the finding in a national survey that individuals 75 years of age and older were considerably less likely to report being a victim of fraud in the previous year than were those between 55 and 64 years of age (McDonald, 2007).

While the definition of "senior" varies from one country to another, it appears that the level of elder abuse in Canada is similar to the levels found in other Western countries. Two national studies have found that about 4 5 percent of Canadian seniors experience some form of abuse (Environics Research Group, 2008; Podnieks et al., 1990). The figure often cited in the United States is 4 percent (American Geriatrics Society, 2005), although it is acknowledged that this is likely a conservative figure. In Australia, the mid point of studies is 5 percent (Prevention of Elder Abuse Task Force, 2001) and in the United Kingdom the prevalence of abuse may be 5 percent or more (House of Commons Health Committee, 2003 2004; Biggs et al., 2005).

Table 4.2 Senior vs. Non-Senior Victims of Selected Offences

Offence Seniors As Victims Non-Seniors As Victims
Spousal violence/abuse (GSS, 2004) 1% in last 12 months
8% reported emotional or financial abuse in last 5 years by current or previous spouse
2% in last 12 months
13% 55-64 and 31% 15-24 reported such spousal abuse in last 5 yrs
(UCR2, 2005)
1.16 victims/100,000 seniors 1.30 victims/100,000 for ages 55-64
3.58 victims/100,000 for ages 15-24
Offences involving weapons (excluding physical force) 18% of violent crimes 18% of violent crimes
(EKOS, 2002)
3% in previous year for those 75+ 7% in previous year for those between 55 and 64
Overall prevalence of victimization
(GSS, 2004)
10% 31%

Source: L. Ogrodnick (2007) Seniors As Victims of Crime 2004 and 2005. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (GSS, 2004; UCR2, 2005).