Senior Citizens as a Vulnerable essay

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While it is true that in many countries like Canada there has been a reduction in vulnerabilities such as poverty among the elderly, it is equally true that;

some 3.3 million seniors still live below the poverty line Good housing and proper medical care are often out of reach for the poor elderly -- or so expensive that little money is left over for other needs. Hundreds of thousands of elders go hungry every month. (Callahan, 1999, p. 74)

Poverty is however also a strong indicator of elderly vulnerability in Canada; where the lack of resources is also linked to safety and security issues. Many elderly people live alone and they become more vulnerable to abuse and attack if they so not have enough funds to afford adequate home security. As one Canadian resource notes; "Examples include safety devices that would reduce their chances of a fall or an alarm system that would protect against break-ins" (Enhancing Safety and Security for Canadian Seniors: Chapter 2: Vulnerability in Later Life).

Allied with this view is the perception that senior citizens who do not have the necessary finances are unable to take part in educational and health and fitness programs, which may help to reduce their vulnerability. The following tables provide some indication of the number of elderly people who live below Canada's low-income cut-off. It is significant in terms of vulnerability factors that the number of those who live alone tends to increase with an increase in age.

Figure 1. Percentage of older people below Statistics Canada's low-income cut-off, by Age, Sex and Living arrangements, 1991.

Females (%)

Age group

Living alone

With spouse

With others



1984 -- 2009


Males (%)

Age group

Living alone

With spouse

With others

Source: Statistics Canada 1995: (

Related to the above is the important issue of medical insurance and assurance for the elderly. While in many countries this is a central area of concern and contention, the Canadian situation has been noted for its insightful and comprehensive approach.

One aspect that is mentioned is Ontario's program of Human Habitat. This program is based on a concept called the Eden Alternative which "...emphasizes a holistic atmosphere of a living environment." Home care is another aspect of the Canadian governments attempts to enhance the self-worth of the elderly by helping them live in their own familiar homes with dignity and comfort. (Cheng-tek) This is also bolstered by other studies which state that "Canada's health care system is frequently offered as a model for American national health insurance" (Barer and Clyde Hertzman, 1992, p. 763).

The elderly are also made vulnerable in terms of ageism and social and cultural stereotypes that are often used to typify and denigrate their sense of self-worth and self-esteem. The Ontario Human Rights Commission describes ageism as "...a tendency to structure society based on an assumption that everyone is young, thereby failing to respond appropriately to the real needs of older persons" (Ageism: Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse). This is also related to negative stereotypes about the elderly. A Canadian report underlines the way in which ageism make the elderly person more vulnerable.

Ageism is pervasive in Canada and many other societies...It is very common to see the individual and broader social problems that older people face, being rationalized or discounted out of hand. Serious social and legal problems affecting older adults such as abuse and victimization by family, staff, or people in position of authority may be characterized as "rare events"

(Ageism: Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse).

In other words, abuse of senior citizens sometimes becomes 'rationalized' or accepted by the society and not questioned as being abnormal. Furthermore, the Ontario Human Rights Commission notes that abuse of older adults '...occurs in large part due to negative attitudes towards older people or their economic or social vulnerability" (Ageism: Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse).

Other social factors such as lack of adequate housing can also make the elderly more vulnerable. This refers particularity to those individuals who may have certain illnesses, impediments and limitations which require specialized accommodation - for instance, those who cannot climb stairs or those who require a regulated temperature.

A crucial factor with regard to security and the physical and psychological well-being of the senior citizen is the family. In most developed countries of the world there has been a decline of the extended family. This is a central factor in elderly vulnerability as the extended form of the family usually provides a safe and caring environment for the elderly person. The virtual demise of the extended family in many areas of the world has therefore resulted in the elderly individual becoming more vulnerable.

For example, as one study notes, there has been a "...notable shift... In many of the world's nations from the extended family-kinship system to the nuclear family kinship system." (Popenoe, 1988, p. 46/47) This has reduced the social and personal support structure of the elderly in modern society. Consequently, with the decline of the family as a support structure the aged may find themselves forced to live in unsafe and uncomfortable living arrangements. They may also be 'farmed out' " spend the rest of their days in clinical old age 'homes or small apartments to care for themselves " (Tobin and Lieberman, 1976, p. 1).

Psychological vulnerabilities

In discussing the aged as a vulnerable section of society one should also take into account psychological vulnerabilities. In recent years the psychological and psychosocial components and causative factors in the ageing process have received increased attention in the literature. As has already been obliquely referred to in the previous sections, the psychological components of elderly vulnerability are closely intertwined with social and other variables. Those senior citizens who, for example, are unable to afford adequate healthcare and security will also possibly suffer from related psychological such as anxiety and depression.

An interesting study in this regard is Vulnerability, health and health care by Rogers (1997). This article refers to the fact that various types of perceived vulnerability in the elderly creates stress and anxiety among these individuals, which in turn has a negative effect on both psychological as well as social functioning among people in this age group. This has the added effect of placing strain on the health and support systems intended for the elderly. "Trends in society indicate that increasing numbers of vulnerable people will create additional demands on an already over-burdened health care system" (Rogers, 1997).


In most developed countries today the issue of age related vulnerabilities has become a central healthcare and security concern. Despite the advances that have been made and in various medical treatments and other efforts to address the problems of the aged, there is little doubt that the elderly demographic is still more vulnerable in many contexts than other age groups.

This realization has also led to a greater awareness of the importance of social and psychological projects and polices directed towards alleviating problems and vulnerabilities among the older section of the population. There has also been an increased emphasis on the psycho-social aspects of old age; which in many cases refers to the sense of self-sufficiency and independence. Surveys indicate that what individuals of both genders fear about old age is the very real possibility of becoming, poor, sick, dependent, and unable to care for themselves (Tobin and Lieberman, 1976, p. 1).

In this regard there has been an increased emphasis on research and public policies in the field of the care for the elderly. This has also resulted in a focus on care from the home as opposed to institutional care. This trend is summarized in the following report

Demand for home care is increasing...everywhere. Growing proportions of very elderly people and improving life expectancy for those with chronic illness lead to greater demand for care. Home-based care, particularly for seniors, is now a substantial and rapidly growing element of the health care system in many Western industrialised countries (Wiles, 2005, p. 79).

Caregiving has also focused on a more holistic approach to healing the elderly and dealing with their vulnerabilities. One of most significant areas of vulnerability is the importance of a safe and secure environment. This is often exacerbated by health factors common in this age group - such as dementia. In essence this means that the vulnerabilities of the elderly can only be adequately addressed by a comprehensive and cohesive policy based on a full understanding of the different vulnerabilities that this demographic faces.

The modern approach to the problems that elderly people experience is to take into account the immediate as well as the wider factors and variables, such as social as well as psychological aspects, in a more holistic understanding of elderly vulnerability.


Abuse of the elderly. Retrieved February 10, 2009, at

Ageism: Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse.…[continue]

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