As with all of us, the wellbeing of older adults is strongly related to the quality of their relationships with their families, friends and social network. Much of the research and public discussion relating to the relationships of older adults has focussed on situations of dependence and vulnerability, such as elder care and elder abuse. These are important issues, but they are not the only aspects of the relationships of older adults. It is incorrect to assume that all, or even most, older adults are ill, dependent and vulnerable. Older adults give as well as receive care, and make significant contributions to their relationships.

A. Elder Care

Discussions of Canada’s aging demographic frequently point to the implications for elder care. As noted earlier, while younger seniors for the most part need no assistance with the activities of daily living, the need for assistance increases with age, particularly where chronic health conditions develop. Most elder care is provided by family members,[35] so that the aging of the populace, together with hospital re-structuring and inadequate home care services, places increasing pressure on families. This is especially true for the so-called “sandwich generation”, which has simultaneous responsibility for both childcare and elder care.[36] The stresses of caregiving fall disproportionately on women, as elder care, like most informal caregiving, is significantly gendered. Shortfalls in social supports and legislative protections for caregivers have frequently been pointed out. For example, while the enactment of family medical leave entitlements was a welcome development, the available leave is of short duration (8 weeks), and is only available where a doctor has identified a significant risk of death within six months.[37] This means that workers who are caring for family members with health conditions that are chronic, but not life-threatening, have no statutorily protected leave available to them.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has recently completed a major project examining the impact of caregiving relationships on the life decisions and opportunities of caregivers, outlining applicable human rights protections, and pointing to directions for reform.[38] On a national level, the Canadian Centre for Elder Law Studies is currently examining the legal frameworks governing leave, accommodation and other entitlements available to employees and other working people who are also engaged in providing care for family members.[39]

The British Columbia Law Institute has recently examined the provisions of the British Columbia Family Relations Act that may require adult children to provide financial support to their parents under certain conditions, and recommended their repeal.[40] There are parallel parental support provisions in Ontario’s Family Law Act. [41]

B. Elder Abuse

The World Health Organization defines elder abuse as “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person.” Elder abuse may take the form of emotional, physical, or financial abuse, sexual mistreatment, or neglect. As elder abuse is largely a hidden problem, it is difficult to obtain accurate figures regarding its prevalence in Canada. In 1999, about seven per cent of older adults reported experiencing some form of elder abuse over the previous five years, with emotional abuse being the most frequently reported type of abuse.[42]

Under the federal Criminal Code, an act of physical, emotional or financial abuse may constitute a criminal offence.[43] It is also an offence for a person responsible for an older person to fail to provide the necessities of life. The province of Ontario has adopted a “Resident Bill of Rights” for persons living in long-term care facilities, which includes the right to be treated with dignity and individuality, and to be free from mental or physical abuse, together with a mandatory duty to report abuse occurring in institutions. [44] As well, the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 enables the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee to intervene in cases where persons who are incapable of personal care or of managing property are at serious risk of adverse consequences due to abuse or neglect. [45]

Questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the current legislative framework for dealing with elder abuse. These mechanisms are rarely used, and may be ineffective for dealing with the most common forms of elder abuse, such as emotional and financial abuse. Further, older persons may not be aware of the available protections, or may experience barriers to accessing them.[46]

C. Older Adults as Caregivers

Older adults are frequently caregivers as well as care recipients, although this fact often receives less attention. In fact, up until age 75, older adults are more likely to report having helped others, than having received help.[47] While older adults over age 75 were more likely to have received than to have provided help with errands or transportation, they were more likely to have provided rather than received coaching, teaching, advice or emotional support. Older adults themselves provide a considerable amount of elder care to their spouses, neighbours and friends,[48] although relatively little attention has been paid to the particular characteristics and needs of this group of elder care providers.

Many older adults have a valued role as grandparents, although again, the legal aspects of this relationship have received relatively little attention.[49] Difficulties in maintaining the grandparent-grandchild relationship may arise when family relationships are re-arranged following a marital breakdown, or if conflict arises between parents and grandparents.[50] There have been a number of cases across Canada considering the circumstances under which a grandparent may be entitled to an order for access to a grandchild. Some of the caselaw emphasizes the importance of parental autonomy in making decisions about who their children will associate with and under what circumstances, while other cases emphasize the value of the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Other issues may arise when grandparents become either the temporary or permanent full-time caregivers for their grandchildren. Approximately 20,000 Ontario children are currently being cared for by their grandparents. Close to half of these caregivers are single grandmothers, and approximately one-third of these families are living in poverty. These grandparents have raised concerns regarding the lack of social supports and legal protections for their unique circumstances.[51]

There are a growing number of older adults caring for adult sons and daughters who have disabilities. As they age, these parents may find it increasingly difficult to provide the care that their children need. As well, they may struggle to develop appropriate plans and supports for their sons and daughters against the day when they are no longer able to provide the necessary care. Complex estate planning issues therefore arise.[52]

Finally, unique family law issues may arise where older adults enter into spousal relationships, or experience relationship breakdown.[53] For example, older adults are more likely to have been previously married, or to have acquired significant assets, and may therefore be more inclined to seek pre-nuptial, spousal, or co-habitation agreements. As well, upon marriage breakdown, there will be special considerations relating to spousal support after retirement, or after the death of the payor.

Previous Next
First Page Last Page
Table of Contents