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A safe space for seniors dealing with abuse

Government funding is allowing the main seniors' shelters in the province to better meet the needs of those facing abuse.

Seniors are ending up in dire straits after financial issues forced them to change their living arrangements, say officials with two Alberta shelters.

"Due to their finances, some older adults need to find a roommate," said Michele Markham, manager of Edmonton’s Sage Safe House for Older Adults. "Things go south and the roommate is in a position of power and control.”

The regional director of Calgary’s Unison at Kerby Centre says it's a similar trend there. “We do see more of that. In order to save money people are getting a roommate,” said Karen Whiteman.

Even with the recent change, they say cruelty from a family member is still the main reason seniors seek temporary shelter.

Markham said, "Typically the majority of people abusing older adults are an adult child or a grandchild. The next are victims of spousal abuse."

“At least half our clients are under 65, if not more,” said Whiteman, adding the increase in younger clients creates challenges, because, “they don’t get the old age benefits and they don’t qualify for seniors housing.”

The two centres received welcome news this April, as the provincial government confirmed $4.2 million in funding over the next three years--an increase of $600,000 from last year.

“It was a game-changer for us,” said Whiteman, adding additional staff can now be hired to increase Unison’s capacity from nine to 14.

“It will be no problem filling the beds,” said Karen Whiteman, adding the facility was forced to turn away at least 200 qualified seniors over the past year. The new money will also be used to hire more staff for outreach work in the community.

In Edmonton, Markham says the additional funds will be used for two case management programs in the community as staffing at the seven-bed facility is adequate.

The 24 beds at the four Alberta shelters accommodate disabled seniors. Both men and women are welcome at safe houses, which are also located in Red Deer and Lethbridge.

 While shelters for seniors have received a financial boost, the umbrella agency that supports all 50 Alberta shelters for gender-based violence is still waiting for a response to an urgent funding plea.

"We're quite concerned," said Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, adding demand for domestic violence shelters increased by 36 per cent in 2021-22.

She says provincial funds are allotted for the shelters' food budget but nothing to address the staffing salary issue--wages and operation funding has not increased in eight years.

In February, the ACWS asked the province to immediately increase shelter spending to the tune of $10.3 million.

"It's serious for many of our members to find staff," said Reimer, adding she doesn't know why women's shelters haven't received more funding. "The work they do is amazing, and the challenge is greater than it's ever been."

Still, the ACWS is making progress towards shaping a cultural shift surrounding domestic violence. Last fall the council teamed up with the Alberta Junior Hockey League to launch Leading Change, a program involving all 400 young men on the 16 teams across the province.

"We engage with players to talk about healthy masculinity and what is domestic violence," said Jill Shillabeer, a coordinator at ACWS, adding the program provides players with the tools they need to help lead the change to end domestic violence.

As part of that theme the ACWS is hosting the Leading Change Summit in Edmonton from May 2-4.

Emmy-nominated television personality Jonathan Van Ness, who has spoken publicly about his own experiences with sexual abuse and how it has affected him, will headline the conference.

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