Victims of Crime Research Digest, Issue No. 6

Police Responses to Elder Abuse: The Ottawa Police Service Elder Abuse Section

Lisa Ha Footnote 9

According to the 2011 Census, the number of seniors in Canada (those over the age of 65) has increased 14% since 2006 (Statistics Canada 2012a). Over the coming decades, as seniors continue to live longer, the proportion of elderly Canadians is projected to grow. This demographic change will impact many segments of Canada's public policy and social welfare structures, including the criminal justice system. In fact, elder abuse is a growing problem as the proportion of both elderly victims of crime and elderly offenders is predicted to increase over the coming years (Bomba 2006).

Research has shown that police play an integral role in effective responses to elder abuse (Payne et al. 2001). In fact, community policing models are being adopted across Canada and the U.S. as effective approaches to combating elder abuse. The community policing model encourages collaboration between police and other justice partners as well as community and social service agencies. Under this approach, elder abuse is seen as a "community issue" that requires multi-disciplinary, community-oriented solutions (Lai 2008).

In 2009, the Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice Canada conducted a study on elder abuse using case files from the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) Elder Abuse Section. This specialized unit, created in 2005, utilizes a collaborative approach to tackling elder abuse. The study revealed that while the statistics provide valuable information on the nature of elder abuse cases, the complexity of the cases is not fully captured in this type of analysis. The purpose of this article is to highlight the work of the OPS Elder Abuse Section with a focus on the results of a semi-structured interview that was done with two OPS Elder Abuse Section officers. The results provide a more complete picture of the nature of these investigations and illustrate the importance of coordinated approaches to elder abuse cases.

What is Elder Abuse?

Although there is not one universally accepted definition of elder abuse, most definitions take into account the existence of a relationship between the abuser and the abused. The World Health Organization (WHO) definition, introduced in 2002, is one of the most widely recognised. The WHO describes elder abuse as "…a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within a relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person."Footnote 1 Generally, elder abuse refers to adults over the age of 65; however, most elder abuse policies note that this term may be used for adults under this age, particularly if the adult has reduced capacity or competence related to aging.

In terms of the impact of this type of abuse, those who specialize in working with the elderly emphasize the dramatic ways in which elder mistreatment can affect the health, safety, and quality of life of older people. Injuries sustained by a frail older adult can have much more tragic consequences than similar injuries inflicted on a younger person. Physical abuse can result in nursing home placement, permanent disability, or even death. Financial exploitation can deprive older adults of resources needed for the necessities of life. Unlike younger people who lose assets or resources, older adults have less time and opportunity to recover from financial losses. An unexpected finding of a longitudinal study published in 1998 was that older adults who have been subjected to any form of mistreatment are three times more likely to die within three years than older adults with similar medical and social circumstances who have not been mistreated (Lifespan of Greater Rochester, Inc. 2011).

Ottawa Police Elder Abuse Section

The Ottawa Police Service has one of the first dedicated Elder Abuse sections in Canada. The mandate of the OPS Elder Abuse Section is two-fold: it "investigates all allegations of elder abuse where there is a relationship of trust/dependence between the victim and their abuser, and it works with front-line workers to educate them and the public to help raise awareness of elder abuse and support for seniors."Footnote 2 In addition, the section works closely with the Ottawa Police Victim Crisis Unit which provides counselling and resources to victims both throughout and following a police investigation.

There are currently dedicated elder abuse sections in police forces across the country. Having a dedicated elder abuse section allows officers to adopt a specialized approach when dealing with elderly victims. Some of the small differences that help put elderly victims at ease include using a gentle tone and helpful manner, where seniors' safety is the paramount concern, and wearing plain clothes and using an unmarked vehicle when investigating incidents. Most importantly, the Elder Abuse Section prioritizes exploring alternative solutions, which often involves coordinating police involvement with appropriate health, social, and community service agencies.

What Do the Numbers Tell Us?

In 2009, the Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice Canada developed a study to better understand the characteristics of elder abuse cases. The purpose of this study was to review case files from the OPS Elder Abuse Section in order to examine the extent and nature of incidents involving elderly victims that are reported to the police. Information from police files was coded and entered into an electronic database for analysis of the key incident and case characteristics.

There were a total of 453 files analysed, which included files from 2005 (when the section was created) to the spring of 2010 (when the file review was carried out). The average age of victims at the time of investigation was 80 (median age 81) with a minimum age of 49 and a maximum age of 101.Footnote 3 More than two thirds of victims were female (70%). Most victims were either widowed (69%) or married (20%) and the vast majority had children (98%). While a large proportion of victims lived in a private home or apartment (58%), a substantial number were residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities (42%).

The average age of accused in the year the case was investigated was 48 (median age 47). The age range was large, with the youngest accused being 17 years old and the oldest 89 years old.Footnote 4 There was an almost even split between male and female accused, with slightly more female accused than males.

Data on the relationship between the victim and the accused showed some interesting differences between men and women. Overall, mothers were the most common victims (28%), followed by "no relationship"Footnote 5 (22%) and "other"Footnote 6 (18%). Male accused were more likely to victimize family or friends, while female accused more often victimized those they cared for in a professional setting.

Overall, the most common type of abuse was financial (62%) with men being victimized more often than women. Within the category of financial abuse, there were two sub-categories: (1) abuse where the victim was unaware it was occurring and (2) abuse by threats or intimidation. In almost half of the cases, victims were unaware that the financial abuse was occurring (48%).Verbal abuse was the next most common category (41%),Footnote 7 with women being victimized only slightly more often than men. Physical abuse was present in 37% of cases, with women being victimized more often than men (40% vs. 30%).

Files were examined to determine if the police noted any barriers to their investigation of the case. Of those cases that were identified as having barriers to the investigation, victim mental health issues were the most commonly identified (55%), followed by victim fear in 16% of cases. Of the cases that were identified as having mental health barriers, in almost three quarters of these cases, dementia or Alzheimer's disease were identified. Other barriers identified by police included the victim being deceased or the victim being paralyzed or otherwise immobile.

Charges were laid in 77 of the 453 files analysed, or in 17% of cases. This is in contrast to Statistics Canada 2010 data which show higher clearance rates for various types of offences (e.g., 21.3% for cases of theft under $5,000 and 79.5% for assault level I) (Statistics Canada 2012b).Footnote 8 The most serious offence was most often fraud (stealing, forging, possessing, or using a credit card) (16% of cases), followed by assault level I (14%). Of those cases where charges were not laid, the most common reason was a lack of evidence (33%). In almost a quarter of cases (24%), the victim refused to cooperate with the police. In cases where no charges were laid and other specific actions were taken, police referred the victim to social services (48%) and victim services and support groups (11%).

Going Beyond the Numbers

Elder Abuse Section officers were invited to review the final report of the case files study and provide comments on the analysis. After reading the report, the officers felt that the numbers did not tell the entire story. While they recognized the importance of the hard data, they found that the analysis lacked the many nuances that characterise elder abuse investigations. As a result, it was agreed that a semi-structured interview with elder abuse investigators would provide the additional context necessary to better understand the complexities of these types of cases. In the fall of 2011, a researcher from the Research and Statistics Division conducted one interview with two officers from the Ottawa Police Service about their work as elder abuse investigators.

Police officers play a pivotal role in the response to elder abuse. Their role is complex, as they act as both investigators and educators. One officer suggested their work is much like social work due to the dynamics between the elderly person and their caregivers or family members. Officers stressed the importance of working side-by-side with other professionals, such as social workers, so they can be free to focus specifically on the criminal aspect of a case. As one officer noted, "We are juggling all these forms of abuse, and this work is very, very time consuming. It takes several weeks or months to investigate an elder abuse case, and there is no cookie-cutter method of investigating elder abuse."

With regards to a typical scenario, officers suggested that the quantitative analysis did not adequately highlight one of the most common situations they encounter. They frequently deal with an accused, typically a family member of the elderly victim, who is suffering from a multitude of problems (e.g., substance abuse, mental health issues, or gambling addiction). In this scenario, the victim is reluctant to come forward and report their family member. It is challenging for officers to decide who to involve and what referrals to make. In these cases, the victim is the one who can access support services, when it is the accused who needs help.

Officers recounted one example where a daughter suffered from mental health issues and was physically abusing her mother. The woman reported the abuse to her doctor who subsequently referred her to in-house social workers. By the time the police got involved she had been assaulted twice. Police had to walk her through the process of the importance of relaying information so that her daughter could be arrested. They had to convince her it was in her daughter's best interest to be arrested to get the support she needed. As one officer stated, "The elderly are hesitant to lay charges against their children, and as a result, police spend a large amount of time walking elders through the importance of reporting the abuse and the benefits of accessing services available to children who are abusive." In this case, there was a successful outcome, as the daughter saw a doctor and was able to get housing.

Officers confirmed the finding of the quantitative review that financial abuse was the most common form of abuse investigated. Specifically, officers indicated that abuse of power of attorney or abuse by a substitute decision-maker is common. They went on to suggest that issues of privacy impede their ability to gather information integral to these investigations, particularly from banks. As one officer related, "I worked on a financial elder abuse case where the bank watched the depletion of three savings accounts to the tune of $1.2 million and did nothing to stop it. The banks were not willing to share information because of privacy concerns. It requires time, persistence, and creativity to investigate each of these cases."

Additionally, the officers indicated that because the elderly are hesitant to report incidents of abuse, the officers often must rely on third-party information. Officers indicate this process is time consuming as all information must be verified before it is deemed reliable. As indicated in the bank example above, information-sharing is a huge hurdle due to privacy concerns. Privacy also comes into play when people are deciding whether to come forward to report assault or abuse. Officers spend a lot of time explaining to witnesses the importance of reporting.

In terms of the difficulties they face in their day-to-day work, officers said much of their time is spent on the telephone giving advice. They find that many callers are not ready to make a complaint; they just want to speak with an officer, who can easily spend an hour on the telephone providing guidance and advice. Communication can also be a challenge, as officers face language barriers or mental health issues that impede investigations. Cultural issues can come into play as well, since in many cultures, involving the police in family affairs is seen as bringing shame on the family.

One of the most important challenges that investigators highlighted is how best to make elder abuse a priority for the justice system. Public education and awareness of the potential criminal nature of elder abuse and the importance of reporting abuse is an important first step. However, the officers suggested that the system itself is not well adapted to deal appropriately with elder abuse cases; they see no mechanism to expedite elder abuse files into court and through the system. In addition, elder abuse cases involve a lot of emotional trauma and loss, yet the officers see the issue getting redefined by the courts and the Crown as a family issue rather than elder abuse. They suggest that training for counsel, the judiciary, and the police would help.


While the demographic shift to an aging population is inevitable, there are many ways society can adapt to these changes and provide support and assistance to elderly Canadians. When the elderly are victimized, police officers are often their first point of contact, and the experiences of the OPS Elder Abuse Section demonstrate the importance of adopting collaborative approaches focusing on support and safety to meet the needs of elderly victims and their families. Furthermore, the officers in the OPS Elder Abuse Section stressed the importance of continued education and awareness of the signs and symptoms of abuse and the importance of adequate levels of support to ensure that there are resources available to elderly victims.


  • Bomba, Patricia A. 2006. Use of a single page elder abuse assessment and management tool: A practical clinician's approach to identifying elder mistreatment. Journal of Gerontological Social Work 46:103-122.
  • Lifespan of Greater Rochester, Inc. 2011. Under the radar: New York State elder abuse prevalence study. New York City: Weill Cornell Medical Center of Cornell University, Department for the Aging.
  • Lai, Selena. 2008. Community mobilization empowering seniors against victimization elder abuse and policing issues: A review of the literature. Ottawa: National Crime Prevention Centre, Public Safety Canada.
  • Payne, Brian K., Bruce L. Berg, and Jeff Toussaint. 2001. The police response to the criminalization of elder abuse: An exploratory study. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 24:605-626.
  • Statistics Canada. 2012a. The Canadian population in 2011: Age and sex. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. Catalogue no. 98-311-XWE2011001. Accessed October 9, 2012, at:
  • Statistics Canada. 2012b. Police-reported clearance rates in Canada, 2010. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. Catalogue no. 85-002-X. Accessed November 13, 2012, at:
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