Recently, eighty-seven year old Brantford Ontario nursing home resident Norma Stenson was abused by staff-members of two separate private facilities. The abuse was captured on hidden video and broadcast on CTV’s W-5 program (1). Two staff-members of Charlotte Villa Retirement Home were charged prior to airing of the videos with criminal offences: Amanda LaPierre, was charged with four counts of assault and two counts of theft; and Shelley Grisdale, was charged with one count of assault and two counts of theft. After the videos showing the woman being robbed and physically assaulted were broadcast on W-5, the police reopened their investigation into the abuse as further charges could result (2).

Regrettably, the abuse of the elderly in Canada does not seem to be confined to isolated incidents. A simple search of news archives will result in numerous reports of the elderly being abused and even killed at the hands of those paid to care for them. Considering the frequency of reported/discovered cases, one has to wonder the degree to which these events occur and are never brought to light. There appears to be a prima facie argument to be made that Canadian elderly suffer systematic abuse within our eldercare facilities as opposed to isolated anomalous incidents.

In examining this issue, I can’t help but compare North American culture with that of other countries and races. The former appears to discard its elders as unproductive and useless burdens on the family and society; citizens incapable of contributing to capitalism once retired from productive work and whose presence in the family home would attenuate the productive (and consumptive) capabilities of the modern double-income family-unit.

Canadian children (and I am one of them) are instilled at an early age with the desire to move out of the nest (away from the parents) and make their own way separately and individually. Each sibling, so the culture dictates, should have its own home, its own cars, and its own life, separate from those of their parents. It is not surprising that grown children are loath to disrupt their own overly busy lives to repatriate aged parents into their individual abode in order to care for them once they can’t care for themselves. Hence the wide-spread warehousing of Canada’s elderly in palliative “Nursing” or “Retirement” homes.

According to Sharleen Stewart, international Canadian vice-president of the Service Employees International Union, “Private nursing homes operate only on the basis of the profit motive:residents are just a commodity that keep the cash flowing” (3).

Contrast the typical western-cultural experience with some other examples; most notably East Indian. I don’t profess to be any sort of expert, but as an outsider looking in, it appears that the multi-generational familial dwelling in which many East Indians cohabit is far more conducive to mutual-assistance and social cohesion. It is my understanding that East Indians venerate their elders much as North American Aboriginals do. Although physically frail, the elderly have lived long lives and accumulated vast knowledge and experiences that can be passed to younger generations”?if the latter take the time to listen. There are many means in which elderly parents or grandparents can continue to contribute to the family and I suggest that they deserve to be cared for with dignity when they become in need of palliative care.

It would seem that some cultures are more likely than others to provide dignified palliative care to elderly family members. Unfortunately, mainstream North American culture does not generally fall into the former category. However, there are anomalies. My father and his siblings took turns in round-the-clock shifts for months caring for their ailing parents in the latter’s own home so that they could die with dignity and avoid the “Retirement” home. Similarly, my step-father and mother have donated months of their time in caring for his aged mother and her (now deceased) husband. They made those sacrifices to their own lives despite the fact that they were generally raised in individualist liberal North American culture.

At this time my wife is 1200 km away in Vancouver BC caring for her ailing grandfather. She has been there since February 9, 2004 and we have no idea how long she will be there. I am now juggling the care of my two children in addition law school studies. These sacrifices are very onerous for our family but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am very proud of my wife; that she would, at great self-sacrifice, separate herself from her immediate family so as to provide her grandfather with a dignified death in his own home. I suggest that not many contemporary mainstream North Americans would do as she is doing; but she is so giving that it hasn’t surprised me in the least.

(1) Help Me: Elder Abuse in Canada. CTV.ca. http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/1076082613040_71491813/

(2) Elder abuse case to be reinvestigated: Police. CTV.ca

(3) McCarten, James (February 12, 2004). Union calls for inquiry into nursing home abuse. C-Health. Online at: http://chealth.canoe.ca/health_news_detail.asp?channel_id=53&news_id=9727

Wayne E. Benedict has a varied career history and strong links to the Canadian labour movement. He is working part-time toward his Bachelor of Human Resources and Labour Relations at AU. He is a fulltime first-year student of the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. For a more detailed writer bio, see The Voice writers’ feature page under ‘About The Voice’. If you would like to send article-feedback to Wayne, he can be reached at wayneben@sasktel.net