Section 4: Family violence against seniors

by Andrea Taylor-Butts

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Abuse against seniors can take many forms and is often perpetrated by a family member (Wahl and Purdy 2010). Moreover, the physical disabilities or cognitive impairments experienced by some seniors may increase their vulnerability and affect the nature of the abuse they experience (Edwards 2011; McDonald and Collins 2000; Wahl and Purdy 2010).

Canada, like many countries around the world, is facing an aging population (Statistics Canada 2012a). According to the most recent Census conducted in 2011, nearly 15% of Canadians, approximately five million, are aged 65 and older (see Age and Sex Highlights Tables, 2011 Census at and this number will continue to grow in the coming years, particularly over the next three decades as baby boomers continue to reach the age of 65. According to population projections, by 2036 the size of the senior population will increase by about two-fold and persons aged 65 and over will represent approximately one-quarter of the Canadian population (Statistics Canada 2010).

Previous research suggests that men and women aged 65 and over have a significantly lower risk of violent victimization relative to younger adults (Brennan 2012). Still, the mistreatment and abuse of seniors has been recognized as a social problem since the 1970s (Brownell and Podnieks, 2005; Report of the National Seniors Council on Elder Abuse 2007) and with an aging Canadian population, gaining further information about what is often referred to as a ‘hidden crime’ will only continue to increase in importance, with possible implications for raising awareness and developing prevention and intervention programs (McDonald and Collins 2000; Brownell and Podnieks, 2005; Report of the National Seniors Council on Elder Abuse 2007; Standing Committee on the Status of Women 2012).

Using police-reported dataNote 1 from the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey, this section examines the extent to which Canadian seniors (aged 65 and over), nationally, provincially/territorially and across the country’s census metropolitan areas (CMAs) were the victims of a violent crime at the hands of a family member. The report examines the age and gender of senior victims of family violence and the specific nature of the relationship between the accused and the victim. Information about the characteristics of the incidents is also presented, such as the types of violence perpetrated, the weapons involved and the injuries sustained by elderly victims. A discussion of how these crimes are cleared by police is also included. This section ends with an examination of family-related violence in its most extreme form, homicides of seniors by family members.

One-third of those accused in violent crimes against seniors are family members

According to police-reported data, at a rate of 173.9 per 100,000 seniors, nearly 8,900 of persons aged 65 and over were the victims of a violent crime in Canada in 2013 (Table 4.1). For the majority of these violent crimes the accused was not related to the victim (i.e., 27% were strangers, 21% a casual acquaintance, and 9% were a neighbour, 5% were a business acquaintance, and 6% were a friend or dating partner of the victim). Still, family members made up one-third of those accused in incidents of violent crime against seniorsNote 2; a figure that is similar to previous studies (Brennan 2013).

Police-reported data indicate that just over 2,900 seniors were the victims of family violence in 2013. This figure translates into a rate of 56.8 victims per 100,000 seniors. In 2013, seniors continued to represent a relatively small proportion of all family violence victims, about 3%, and had lower rates of family violence than any other age group (Chart 4.1). The rate of family violence among younger men aged 25 to 34, for example, was about four times higher than the rate for men aged 65 and over. This difference was even more pronounced among women, with the victimization rate for women aged 25 to 34 being over nine times higher than the rate for senior women.

Description for chart 4.1

Younger seniors and senior women at greater risk of family violence victimization

Even among seniors themselves, the risk of family-related violence varies. For instance, similar to the overall pattern observed among younger adults, rates of police-reported family violence are generally highest among younger seniors and gradually decline with age (Chart 4.2). In 2013, the rate of family-related violence among seniors aged 65 to 74 was 1.5 times higher than the rate for seniors aged 75 to 84 and double that reported for seniors 85 and older. Differences in living arrangements may help explain some of the differences in the rates of family violence experienced between younger and older seniors. Younger seniors are more likely to live in private households, usually with a spouse or common-law partner. However, this likelihood declines with age and the likelihood of living in a collective dwelling such as a seniors’ residence or nursing home increases (Statistics Canada 2012a). In addition, older seniors, particularly older senior women, may outlive their spouses, thereby reducing their risk of family violence perpetrated by a spouse (Chappell et al., 2003; Sinha 2012). Further, the ability or capacity to report abuse (i.e., due to, for example, frailty or cognitive impairment) may decline with age (Laumann, Leitsch and Waite 2008).

Description for chart 4.2

While less pronounced than among their younger counterparts, differences in family violence victimization by sex were also observed among seniors. In 2013, the police-reported rate of family violence for senior women was higher (+26%) than the rate for senior men (62.7 versus 49.7 per 100,000, respectively). This finding is consistent with the greater risk of family violence victimization in general, and spousal violence victimization in particular, that women face. Nevertheless, the difference between female and male rates of family violence among seniors is notably smaller than the gap observed between the sexes for younger victims. Women aged 15 to 64 experienced a police-reported rate of family violence that was more than twice the rate for similarly aged men; and female victims aged 25 to 34 (the group with the highest victimization rate), in particular, had a rate 3 times higher than that of their male counterparts.

Family violence against seniors highest in the territories, New Brunswick, Alberta and Saskatchewan

Across Canada, violent crime rates, in general, were highest in the territories. Likewise, police-reported family violence against seniors was highest in Nunavut, with the next highest rates reported in the Northwest Territories, then Yukon (Table 4.2). Among the provinces, New Brunswick and Alberta, both with similar rates, followed closely by Saskatchewan, recorded the highest rates of family violence against seniors in 2013 (Chart 4.3). This finding differs from the general pattern for violent crimes seen provincially in 2013, where rates were highest in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, followed by Newfoundland and Labrador.

Description for chart 4.3

In previous years while nationally, senior women had higher rates of family violence than senior men, in some provinces or territories it was senior men who were at greater risk. In 2013, there were a number of jurisdictions where the rate of family violence for senior men was higher than that of senior women. In Yukon, for example, the rate of family violence for senior men was double that of senior women. Similarly, but to a lesser degree, senior men also experienced higher rates of family violence in Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Prince Edward Island. Senior women, however, had notably higher rates of family violence in the Northwest Territories, Ontario, Quebec, Nunavut and Nova Scotia. In each of these jurisdictions the victimization rate for female seniors was about 1.5 times greater than the rate for male seniors. Rates for senior men and senior women were most similar in New Brunswick.

Seniors living in Canada’s census metropolitan areas face lower risk of family violence than those in smaller towns and cities

Rates of family violence among seniors tend to be lower among those living in urban versus rural areas (Brennan 2013; Sinha 2012). As with previous years, police-reported data from 2013 also indicate that family violence rates for senior victims were lower among seniors living in Canada’s 33 Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) than among those residing in smaller towns and cities outside of CMAs. Isolation can put seniors a greater risk of experiencing abuse and may be one of many possible factors in understanding the higher rates of family violence for seniors in non-CMAs versus CMAs (Report of the National Seniors Council on Elder Abuse 2007; Wahl and Purdy 2010). Overall, about 47.7 per 100,000 seniors living in a CMA were victims of family violence compared to 73.5 per 100,000 seniors living in non-CMAs (Table 4.3).

The CMA with the highest rate of family violence among seniors was St. John’s, where the rate of victimization was more than 1.5 times higher than the overall rate for Canada (Chart 4.4). Gatineau, Vancouver, Kelowna, Montréal and Saint John were also among the CMAs with the highest rates of police-reported family violence against seniors, all with rates above the national rate. At one-fifth the national rate, Greater Sudbury recorded the lowest rate of family violence against seniors among the CMAs. Barrie, Sherbrooke, Guelph, and Thunder Bay had the next lowest rates, but the rates of family violence against seniors in these CMAs were still about double that of Greater Sudbury.

Description for chart 4.4

Victims’ grown children most often the perpetrators of family-related violence against seniors

In 2013, as in previous years, seniors who were the victims of family violence were most likely to be victimized by their own adult children, according to police-reported data (Brennan 2013; Sinha 2012). About 4 in 10 (43%) senior victims of police-reported family violence indicated that the accused was their grown child. Spouses (28%) were the second most likely family members to be identified as perpetrators of family violence against seniors.

Both male and female seniors reported a similar likelihood of being victimized by their grown children (Chart 4.5). Their rates of victimization by siblings and extended family members, though notably lower than the rates of victimization by grown children, were also similar. Where male and female seniors differ most is in their risk of spousal violence. The rate of spousal violence for senior women (19.8 per 100,000) was nearly double the rate experienced by senior men (10.8 per 100,000). Still, seniors, regardless of sex, had the lowest rates of spousal violence among all age groups; a finding supported by previous research (Sinha 2013).

Description for chart 4.5

Common assault accounts for more than half of violence committed against seniors by family members

Regardless of the victim’s age, common assault,Note 3 which includes acts that cause relatively minor or no physical injury (e.g., pushing, slapping, punching and face-to-face threats), is the type of offence reported in the majority of family violence incidents. Accordingly, more than half (55%) of seniors victimized by a family member suffered a common or level 1 assault in 2013 (Table 4.4). Uttering threats (19%), followed by more serious types of assault (12%), were the next most frequent offences perpetrated against senior victims of family violence.

Overall, the distribution of the various offences experienced by senior, as well as younger adult victims of family violence was similar. However, seniors victimized by a family member were proportionately more likely to have threats uttered against them (19% versus 12%) compared to victims of family violence who were not seniors (i.e., younger adults aged 15 to 64).

Data from a subset of police services can be used to examine trends in two forms of family violence: physical assault and sexual assault.Note 4 These data show that overall, the recent 5-year trend in the most common form of family violence against seniors, physical assaults, has been relatively stable, with only a 1% difference between 2009 and 2013. While the annual rate of family-related physical assaults for seniors as a whole was generally similar in each year from 2009 to 2013, trends in rates by sex were somewhat different (Chart 4.6). Following an 8% year-over-year decline in 2010, rates of family violence for senior males were steady between 2010 and 2013. For female seniors, however, the 5-year trend was more varied. The rate of family-related violence against female seniors rose 11% between 2009 and 2010, remained stable from 2010 to 2012, then declined 7% between 2012 and 2013.

Compared to physical assaults, sexual assaults of seniors by family members are much less common and tend to disproportionately affect female seniors when they do occur. For instance, in 2013 there were 23 family-related sexual assaults against seniors, which accounted for 1% of all family violence against seniors; 96% of these senior sexual assault victims were female. Trend data from 2009 to 2013 show that overall rates of family-related sexual assaults against seniors declined consistently from 2009 to 2012, dropping from 0.6 per 100,000 seniors to 0.3 per 100,000 seniors (-51%). However in 2013, the rate rose (+47% over 2012), returning to 0.5 per 100,000 seniors.

Description for chart 4.6

Few incidents of family violence against seniors involved weapons

In a sizable majority of incidents (85%), the perpetrators of family violence against seniors used physical force (e.g., choking, pushing, slapping, punching) or threats (i.e., verbal or gesture) against their victims; not weapons. This finding was true for both male and female seniors. Overall, more than half (60%) of seniors victimized by a relative in 2013 were subjected to physical force and another 24% to threats (Table 4.5). Compared to seniors, younger adultNote 5 victims of family violence were more likely to have physical force used against them (68%), and less likely to endure threats (16%).

A weapon was involved in fewer than one in six family violence incidents against senior victims. If, however, a weapon was present, rarely was it a firearm (1%). Knives, blunt instruments and other weapons were the weapons most often implicated in incidents of family violence against seniors.

Most senior victims of family violence do not sustain physical injuries

Senior victims of family violence experienced physical injuries less frequently than victims who were younger adults. Police-reported findings indicate that among seniors victimized by a family member, 61% sustained no physical injuries as a result of the violence suffered, compared to 53% of younger adult victims. Of the 39% of seniors who were injured, the vast majority sustained minor injuries requiring little or no medical attention (e.g., some first aid) (Table 4.6). This finding is consistent with the earlier reported finding that three-quarters of family violence incidents against seniors involve the least serious level of assault or uttering threats, and that most do not involve weapons. Nevertheless, 3% of senior victims (versus 2% of younger adult victims) suffered severe physical injuries or died as a result of family violence. With respect to the level of injury sustained, similar proportions were observed for both male and female victims of family violence against seniors.

Charges are laid in the majority of police-reported incidents of family violence against seniors

Not all crimes come to the attention of police. According to research on self-reported victimization among older adults (i.e., aged 55 and older), violent incidents involving older adults were more likely to be reported to police than were violent crimes against younger victims (i.e., aged 15 to 54). Just under half (46%) of all violent incidents against older adults are reported to police, compared to 28% of violent crimes against younger Canadians (Brennan 2012). There are numerous reasons why senior victims of family violence may choose not to report their victimization to the police, some of which may include any of the following: victims may blame themselves for the abuse or not recognize the situation as abusive; they may feel ashamed, embarrassed or humiliated; they may fear the repercussions of disclosing the abuse (e.g., an escalation of the abuse; loss of financial support; loss of connections with loved ones); or individuals may not know where to turn for help (Employment and Social Development Canada 2011; Wahl and Purdy 2010). Data from the General Social Survey on victimization show that among self-reported victims of violence aged 55 and older, the most common reasons for not reporting their violent victimization to police were because the incident was dealt with in another way; they did not feel the police could do anything about it; because the incident was not important enough; or because they considered the incident to be a personal matter (Brennan 2012).

When a family-related violent incident against a senior comes to the attention of police, it is likely to result in the identification of a perpetrator and the laying of charges. In 2013, 85% of police-reported incidents of family violence against seniors were cleared by police (Table 4.7).

Over half (55%) of family violence incidents against seniors were ‘cleared by charge’, meaning that at least one accused was identified and a charge was laid (or recommended to be laid) against the accused. And while overall, clearance rates were similar for seniors and younger adults (85% and 86%, respectively), a slightly larger proportion (58%) of family violence incidents involving adult victims that were not seniors resulted in charges being laid or recommended.

Among senior victims of family violence, 30% of incidents were cleared by police through means other than the laying of a charge. In these instances, while an accused is identified and sufficient evidence exists to lay charges, the incident is cleared otherwise, such as in cases where the senior victim requested charges not be laid against the family member (18%) or where departmental discretion was applied (7%).

Overall, the total percentage of family violence incidents against seniors cleared by police was similar for senior women (84%) and senior men (86%). Charges were slightly more common in cases where the victim was a female senior (57%) versus a male senior (51%), while incidents involving male seniors (35%) were cleared by means other than by charge more often than those involving senior females (27%).

Family homicides of seniors continue to be rare

In rare instances, family violence results in homicide. Detailed information on the characteristics of homicide incidents, victims and accused is collected through the Homicide Survey and while family-related homicides of seniors, and homicides in general, are relatively uncommon in Canada, information from the Homicide Survey allows a closer look at the long-term trends of family homicide rates against seniors and the motivating factors behind these crimes.

In 2013, the overall rate of family-related homicides against seniors sat at 3.2 for every 1 million persons aged 65 and over. Generally speaking, rates of family-related homicides against seniors have declined over the last three decades, with some year-to-year fluctuations. These annual fluctuations can be accounted for when examining trends in family-related homicides of seniors, by calculating the average homicide rate over a longer time frame, such as a decade. For example, the 10-year average in rates of family-related homicides for seniors from the most recent 10-year period (i.e., 2004 to 2013) was 15% lower than the average rate for the previous 10-year period (i.e., 1994 to 2003) and 30% below the 10-year average from two decades ago (i.e., 1984 to 1993).

Looking at the general trend over time, rates of family homicide against seniors have tended to decline more notably for males compared to females (Chart 4.7). Again using a 10-year average, the rate of family homicides for senior males fell 40% compared to two decades ago, while female seniors experienced a decline of 22% over the same period of time.

Generally speaking, the elevated risk of family violence traditionally experienced by senior women versus senior men also seems to correspond with a greater risk for suffering family homicide. Over the last three decades, along with a slightly steeper decline in their rates of family-related homicides, senior men were, in a majority of instances, less likely than senior women to be killed by a family member. However in 2013, at a rate of 4.1 per million, senior men experienced family homicide at a rate that was nearly double that of senior females (2.5 per million).

Description for chart 4.7

Victim’s child the perpetrator in nearly half of family-related homicides of seniors

In terms of who the perpetrators are, the patterns observed for the less extreme forms of family violence against seniors generally apply to the acts of family violence that result in death. Senior victims of family-related homicides were most likely to have been killed by their grown children. Between 2003 and 2013, the victim’s grown child was identified as the perpetrator in nearly half (47%) of all family-related homicides of seniors. In comparison, younger adults who were the victims of a family homicide, were most often (58%) killed by a current or former spouse.Note 6 A current or former spouse was the second most commonly accused family member in family-related homicides of seniors, constituting 33% of perpetrators.

Male seniors who were killed by a family member were especially likely to have died at the hands of their child, with grown children accounting for 72% of those accused (Table 4.8). However, among female victims of family-related homicide of seniors, the largest proportion of victims was killed by a legal or common-law partner (46%), with the victims’ children as the next most likely perpetrators (33%).

Feelings of frustration, anger or despair and arguments often precipitating factors in family homicides of seniors

In most family-related homicides of seniors, the primary motive is known or there is strong evidence to suggest the underlying motive. According to police records, feelings of frustration, anger or despair experienced by the accused have led to 33% of these homicides, and nearly another third (31%) were the result of an argument or quarrel. Incidents where there was no apparent motive, such as when mental illness or dementia were involved, accounted for fewer than one in five family-related homicides of a senior (Table 4.9).

Motives for family-related homicides of seniors differ somewhat between the sexes. In family-related homicides of senior women, frustration, anger or despair were the most commonly identified precipitating factors, listed as motives in 42% of incidents (compared to 18% involving male victims). Arguments, however, were the most frequent cause for family-related homicides of senior men, with almost half (45%) of family homicides against male seniors occurring as a result of an argument; a proportion almost double that reported for senior female victims (24%).

In addition, family-related homicides against seniors that were classified as mercy killings or assisted suicides were more common among senior women (8%) than senior men (2%). As well, the proportion of family-related homicides with no apparent motive was higher among male seniors (21%), than among female seniors (14%).


According to police-reported data, seniors experienced lower rates of family-related violence in 2013 than younger adults, a trend supported by previous findings. Similarly, current findings also indicated that age, sex and geography continue to be relevant factors in family violence against seniors. Younger seniors experienced higher rates of family violence than older seniors and senior women were at greater risk than their male counterparts.

With respect to geographic variations, rates of family violence against seniors continued to be highest in the territories in 2013, while New Brunswick, Alberta and Saskatchewan recorded the highest rates among the provinces. Looking at Canada’s CMAs and non-CMAs, the risk of family victimization among seniors was generally greater for seniors living in non-CMAs.

As in years prior, acts of family-related violence against both male and female seniors were most commonly perpetrated by victims’ grown children. However, female seniors were more likely than male seniors to be victimized by a spouse. Violent crimes against seniors committed by family members typically took the form of common assaults. Weapons were rarely present in family violence against seniors. Instead, physical force and threats were most often used against senior victims. Family violence against seniors that escalates to homicide continues to be rare.

Detailed data tables


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