The following article was published in the Edmonton Journal on July 14, 2013.
By Otiena Ellwand, Edmonton Journal
EDMONTON - At 63, Leslie Muise uprooted her life in Halifax and moved across the country to be with her eldest child. She sold off her car, most of her furniture, said goodbye to her friends and got on a plane hoping life would be better in Alberta. Instead, about two months after her arrival in May 2010, she ended up at a safe house for abused seniors.
When she arrived in Edmonton, things were not as she had expected. She and her eldest son had made arrangements to live together in an apartment, splitting the cost of rent and food. She would cook a few meals and he, in turn, would help her out with her daily needs.
Muise was ill. She suffers from multiple sclerosis and diabetes and uses a motorized wheelchair on bad days. She’d just started using insulin for the first time.
She had agreed to pay between $500 and $600 for rent and food, but soon that went up when her son left her alone to live with his girlfriend. He only stayed one or two nights the entire time she lived there. She was living on a $1,500 budget and couldn’t afford to pay for everything herself.
“I was bewildered, I was scared, I was frightened to death, I didn’t know what to expect,” she says.
Muise says she had no idea how to navigate the buses or LRT, she didn’t know where the closest grocery stores or hospitals were. She was ultimately left to her own devices, abandoned, she says.
About a month later, her son told her he had quit his job and was going to give up the apartment. She had to find somewhere else to live.
She’d never lived on the street or been on welfare and now she was basically down to nothing, she explains. She packed her belongings into a suitcase and went to a women’s shelter. She later moved in to the Seniors’ Association of Greater Edmonton Safe House.
“I didn’t know what my future was going to hold. I’d worked all my life and I didn’t know where I was going,” she says. “I was in a position I never expected to be in, ever in my life. And he takes off and he leaves me alone.”
There are 100,000 seniors in Edmonton, 7,000 of whom may experience some type of abuse in their senior years, says Patrick Power, a social worker with the City of Edmonton’s Elder Abuse Intervention Team.
Out of the 483 cases the team dealt with in 2012, about half were financial abuse and about half were emotional abuse.
Every month, the team refers at least one or two people to the safe house.
“It’s very important. It’s one of those that you really need in your community,” he says. “When you have those sorts of situations where the options are only that they have to get out, where do they go? In those cases, we need that safe house, there’s no question about it.”
When the safe house was established 14 years ago, it was the second facility of its kind in North America after the Kerby Centre in Calgary.
Today, it takes up the entire floor of an apartment building. There are seven furnished suites, equipped with a private kitchen and bathroom, where seniors can stay for up to 60 days.
At least 80 per cent of the seniors who end up there have been financially abused by family members or caregivers, says Bernice Sewell, SAGE’s director of operations.
In 45 per cent of cases the perpetrator is a spouse; in the other 55 per cent, the perpetrator is a child, relative or caregiver. Only 30 per cent of the occupants are men.
In a vacant one bedroom apartment, the furniture is worn and out of style. There’s a television, a vase of plastic flowers and dumbbells in the closet. There are instructions on how to heat up frozen soup on the custard-yellow cupboards in the kitchen. Occupants stay here for free and meals are also provided.
Looking around, there’s no indication that this apartment is unique – that it takes a special key to access this floor, that the address is confidential and the apartment phone numbers are unlisted.
A woman wearing a floral shirt hobbles with a walker into the common area where there are board games, books, a television and a large window overlooking the street. She says she’s looking for someone to talk to.
Muise says she never thought what was going on in her life was abuse. Going to a safe house was a foreign concept. It was only once she was there, with social workers and nurses on hand to help her deal with her issues, that she started to come to terms with her dysfunctional family and an ex-husband who she says was emotionally abusive. They also helped her find an apartment to live in afterwards.
“The overwhelming feeling that I had was a feeling of safety, being accepted no matter how I behaved,” she says. “They’re like a family of people that I never had.”
When the safe house was first established, the apartments were occupied 80 per cent of the time, but over the past two years it’s been consistently full, Sewell says. Every year, about 45 seniors stay at the safe house, for a total of about 400 occupants over the past 14 years.
Sewell doesn’t think elder abuse is increasing, just that people are becoming more aware of it.
“It’s been around forever. I don’t think people recognized it as a huge issue, I don’t think that seniors thought that they should reach out for help, there was no place else to turn,” she says.
Three years later, Muise doesn’t consider herself a victim of abuse, but a survivor. She talks openly about her experience and how grateful she is that SAGE helped her land on her feet.
She and her eldest son still don’t talk.
“Sometimes I cry,” she says. “It seems like I’m always trying to think of ways to contact them that wouldn’t seem manipulative. The only thing I can come up with is to respect them and don’t get in touch with them at all.”
By Otiena Ellwand, Edmonton Journal