April 2007


April 26 & 27, 2007
Best Western Lamplighter Inn and Conference
London, ON

Members of Distress Centres and Crisis Lines from through out Ontario met at the Spring Educational Forum in London last week. Over 80 people were registered for this two day event.

The speakers were educational and informative and the attendees were engaged in their presentation, asking questions, offering comments and sharing their perspectives with each other.

For those who were unable to attend a DVD of the conference proceedings will be available next month along with electronic copies of the various powerpoint presentations.


The images on the TV of the retirement home worker pummeling the elderly lady in her wheelchair were shocking.

Approximately 10% of seniors experience physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse, but no one knows for sure the true extent of the crime. Very often, seniors do not report abuse. Why? Some seniors can’t tell because of disabilities like dementia, while others won’t say because of fear, particularly if they are dependent on the abuser.

With Canada’s aging population, this is becoming an increasingly important issue. Statistics Canada estimates that by 2011, 4.8 million people will be seniors (aged 65 and older). But a far more significant number is the seniors-in-waiting: by 2011, the 45-to-64 age group will number almost 9.5 million, a full 29% of the population. Clearly, this is a call to action.

And Distress Centres have heard the call.

Distre! ss Centres, long a source of around-the-clock help for individuals in crisis, are beginning to adapt existing services to meet the unique needs of seniors. They are doing this through close partnerships with Elder Abuse Networks across the province. While the province provides resources through the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the Ontario Seniors’ Secretariat, it is up to each community to implement programs that will help seniors.

Two such programs are at Distress Centres in Dufferin and in Peel. Dufferin has started TeleCheck for seniors, while Peel is looking forward to opening the Elder Abuse Peer Support Program.

In January 2005, Community Torchlight Distress Centre Wellington-Dufferin started its TeleCheck program, which, like its sister program in Sarnia, makes daily calls to isolated seniors and other at-risk people. Katherine Johnson, program coordinator, quickly saw its application to abuse prevention for seniors.
Because TeleCheck is a non-threatening presence, with a daily fri endly call, trust is quickly built between the senior and the agency. “Seniors don’t generally call help lines when they are struggling,” says Katherine. “Many of them survived the war. It’s a culture of independence. That’s why TeleCheck works so well: it builds up trust. After that, some do begin to share their concerns and need for support.”

In her work to prevent abuse through the Telecheck program, Katherine was also instrumental in starting the Dufferin Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse (DNPEA). This group gathers professionals like police, paramedics, long term care workers, and financial advisers to talk about elder abuse. Education is a large part of their efforts, and through networking, relationships have been built between service providers that make accessing available supports for seniors much easier. Through their partnerships, they are also able to identify and address gaps in service. Because of the educational work of the DN! PEA, Distress Centre volunteers are able to recognize and respond appropriately to signs of elder abuse. Talking to seniors every day, TeleCheck volunteers are uniquely poised to prevent elder abuse.

Linda Gerger, Executive Director of Distress Centre Peel, is also eager to combat senior abuse. Distress Centre Peel has been active in the Peel Elder Abuse Network since its inception in 2003, but Linda noticed that abused seniors weren’t using call lines to get help. She learned that many seniors weren’t comfortable mentioning abuse issues to younger volunteers. Instead, if they needed to discuss troubling situations, they preferred to talk with people their own age.

In response, Distress Centre Peel joined forces with another member of the Elder Abuse Network, Family Services of Peel, to develop the Elder Abuse Peer Support Program. If funding is granted, this program could start as early as July. Each agency brings their unique strengths to this prog! ram. Distress Centre Peel will provide a help line answered by seniors trained in recognizing abuse, while Family Services will provide a professional facilitator who can follow through with abused seniors. For example, if a senior were living at home with her son, who didn’t pay rent and stole money from her, she could call the help line. A volunteer would listen, ask questions that could identify abuse, and offer the help of the facilitator. The facilitator could visit her, assess the problem, and help her access resources to solve the problem. Working together, these two agencies would also report back to the Peel Elder Abuse Network to further improve services to seniors.

Such initiatives are sensible, building on the expertise Distress Centres have already demonstrated in providing help lines and crisis support. Through their phone lines, Distress Centres are taking lead steps in bridging the gap of service to abused seniors.

by Jeanette W. Duncan


Her son was bright, in university, and highly successful. Yes, he struggled a bit with alcohol, but she didn’t see the depression it masked. His suicide came as a complete shock.

For Laura*, losing her son pulsed as painfully as an open wound. She found help from the Survivor Support Program, run by the Distress Centres of Toronto. Pioneered in 1979, this program is the oldest of its kind in Canada, helping 500 survivors of suicide a year. These survivors have all lost loved ones due to suicide.

This unique program combines individualized counseling with group therapy. The survivor is matched with a volunteer counseling team, one of whom is a survivor of suicide. They meet weekly for eight weeks, dealing with the trauma, working through grief issues, and learning life skills that will limit the impact of the suicide. Then the survivor can join a group session, where she can share he! r experience with other survivors. All of this is run by volunteers, half of whom have gone through the program themselves.

It was a life-saver for Laura. “The Survivor Support Program helped clot the bleeding so a scar could grow over the wound,” she says, talking about her pain at her son’s death. With that help, she was able to limp back into regular life.

Why is this program so important? “Survivors of suicide have a 7 to 10 times higher risk of committing suicide,” explains Karen Letofsky, Executive Director. “So really, this program fits right in with the mandate of Distress Centres, which is to prevent suicide. With this program, we’re just targeting a specific population to do that.”

Three years ago, they also added the Homicide Bereavement Program. Homicide and suicide survivors face similar struggles: both face grief complicated by trauma, and pain for the victim mixed with anger for the perpetrator. For the homicide sur! vivor, however, grief is interrupted as the case goes through the just ice system and further complicated by media attention. For suicide survivors, the victim and the perpetrator are confusingly the same person. These are complicated issues that don’t fit well in traditional grief counseling.

While the Survivor Support Program meets the unique needs of survivors, it is also active in the community. After a suicide, staff will go into a workplace or residential setting. While trauma postvention can help stabilize a group traumatized by suicide, Karen recognizes that it is only through training and the gaining of long-term skills that real advances are made. The Community Outreach Program does about fifty training events a year, teaching community groups ranging in size from 12 to 200 about various aspects of suicide prevention. Each of these training events is tailored to the specific needs of that group.

Because Toronto is so culturally diverse, cultural competence is a must. “Each culture has its own taboos and ways of! dealing with suicide and murder,” says Karen. They are sensitive to these differences in their training, and in matching survivors with volunteers.

Karen tells of one Asian lady who waited fifty years to get help after her mother’s suicide. Although her mother died when she was two, it wasn’t until she was in her twenties that someone whispered the truth to her. Even so, it was only when her own daughter became suicidal that she set aside her shame of her mother’s suicide to go through the program. Her own emotional issues taken care of, she was able to help her daughter. The daughter is still alive today.

This reluctance to talk about suicide is common in many cultures and demographics. Yet for twenty-eight years, the Suicide Survivor Program has been a gentle but persistent force in the Toronto area, working hard to break down taboos about suicide. Today this program is recognized as a significant resource for trauma events, with referrals co! ming from police, funeral directors, and even family doctors. And grie ving people are getting the help they need to deal with the trauma of suicide and murder.

For Laura, twenty years after her son’s suicide, she’s finally fulfilling her dream of joining the program’s sixty volunteers. For many survivors, becoming a volunteer can bring meaning to their loss. But as much as her wound has healed, Laura acknowledges that her life will never be the same. “I’ll always have a scar. But it’s a mark of hardship, not a deformity.”

A scar not hidden, but easily visible to others who come in to the program, a sign of hope that their wounds too will heal.

*Not her real name.

by Jeanette W. Duncan


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