The issue

Deaf seniors are a particularly vulnerable group in modern society.

Our position

Government support for Deaf seniors’ residences and services must be provided. The past work of Deaf seniors and their ability to continue to make valuable contributions today must be recognized.

The Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada recognizes that Deaf senior citizens are an important component of the Deaf community in Canada, especially as role-models. We recognize that they are also a particularly vulnerable segment of society.

In 2001, the CAD-ASC conducted a study of Deaf senior citizens in Canada, and found many areas of significant concern.

Deaf seniors grew up in an era when Sign language and deafness were stigmatized (regarded negatively); as a consequence, many of them suffered poor quality education, were unable to attend university or college because of the lack of support services, and were prevented from achieving professional or executive-level employment. Obviously this has had unfortunate financial impact for many Deaf seniors today.

Hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, and other special services and residences for senior citizens are usually incapable of dealing with Deaf seniors or providing them with a suitable environment, including the company of other Deaf residents. In fact, most seniors’ residences are no different from most regular schools in that they provide the most rather than the least restrictive environment for Deaf people. Examples include a lack of videophones, no visual fire-alarms, no easily-reachable button to turn on lights from a bed or a chair, no shake-awake alarms, no two-way light-switches in room entrances or bathrooms, no staff or fellow residents capable of Signing, and no Sign language interpreters for medical examinations.

The Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada strongly supports the state funding of seniors’ residences which are particularly designed and intended for Deaf people. These residences provide the most accessible environment for Deaf seniors. We encourage governments to build more of these residences — at least one in every province.

Special training needs to be provided to caregivers and to those who work in the Deaf residences. Hiring preference must be given to qualified caregivers who are Deaf themselves. The residences must be fully accessible for Deaf people and Deaf visitors. In addition, the building design must conform to Deaf needs, such as open spaces, rounded corners, clear and gentle lighting, restful wallpaper/paint and ceilings, flooring with enough “give” to enable foot-stamping to attract attention, clear visual signage and indicators, visual communication devices inside elevators and washrooms and other enclosed spaces, etc.

Well-meaning non-Deaf people, including children and siblings, often take control of the lives of Deaf seniors “in their own best interests”, such as by obtaining power of attorney. It is all too easy for non-Deaf people to do this when the Deaf senior is not provided with interpreters, for example at medical assessments, so as to have the senior labelled incompetent to manage his/her own affairs. They may then place the Deaf senior in a nursing home or retirement residence that suits their own wishes, rather than placing them in a Deaf-aware environment or allowing them to continue living independently.

While the majority of Deaf seniors surveyed in the CAD-ASC’s project stated that they had made financial plans for retirement, an even larger majority expressed a need for workshops and accessible information to assist them in making these plans. There is a definite lack of information available to them in a format they can fully understand.

The CAD-ASC also found disturbing evidence of widespread elder abuse. Both non-Deaf and Deaf people may see Deaf seniors as particularly easy targets for abuse. They tend to be more naive and trusting than younger people, more easily intimidated, and more reluctant to report their victimization to non-Deaf authorities.

In 2002, we launched a special crime prevention strategy to build a national network for the protection of Deaf senior citizens. Unfortunately, this was only a short-term pilot project. Federal and provincial governments must recognize the dangers facing Deaf seniors and must provide the resources to support such programs for their protection.

We make the following recommendations:

  1. Federal, provincial, and municipal governments must combine efforts and resources to create at least one senior citizens residence and community centre for Deaf people in every province, and preferably in every major city, throughout the nation.
  2. Laws governing nursing homes and retirement residences must be amended to require visual alarm systems, videophones, visual safety and communication measures (such as two-way light-switches for bedrooms and bathrooms), and TV caption decoders left permanently on.
  3. Anyone wishing to work in senior citizens health care services must be required to take basic courses in Sign language and Deaf culture.
  4. It must be made mandatory under law that a Sign language interpreter be provided at a competency assessment for any Deaf person, especially a Deaf senior citizen.
  5. Funding and logistical support must be provided for the continuation of the national network of Deaf caregivers and advocates to assist Deaf seniors, including “marshals” authorized to enter any retirement/nursing home or mental health facility to seek out misdiagnosed Deaf persons.
  6. Funding and human resources must be provided for workshops and one-to-one assistance (conducted in Sign) to Deaf seniors in matters such as end-of-life issues, will-making, abuse, and rights.
  7. Hospice and palliative care must be designated as a core health service and provided with appropriate funding. This funding must include monies for the provision of support services and assistive devices dedicated to the needs of Deaf clients.

The Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada recognizes the special talents and knowledge of Deaf seniors. It was their generation which fought for the right to recognition, dignity and acceptance of the Deaf languages and cultures in Canada. They led the long fight for better quality Deaf education, better jobs and training, more accessibility to universities and to society in general. They demanded the captioning of television and video/DVD programming, the construction of telephone Message Relay Services, and the accessibility of transportation services and stations. They kept the Deaf culture alive and thriving at a time when non-Deaf society still resisted accepting its existence and its legitimacy.

The Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada recognizes the importance of the legacy of Deaf seniors, and we encourage all Deaf organizations to not only honour them but to continue to keep them involved in order to pass on their skills and knowledge. For example, we believe strongly in mentoring programs which match up Deaf seniors with Deaf youth so that the seniors can teach Sign language and Deaf culture to the youth, while the youth can assist the seniors with their everyday chores and needs.

We salute our Deaf seniors and thank them for their dedication and hard work. They will live forever in our hearts.

Recommended reading: Deaf Seniors and Crime Prevention, by Shelly Carver and Evelyne Gounetenzi, Canadian Association of the Deaf, 2002.

Recommended reading: Keeping the Hands in Motion, by Chris Kenopic, Canadian Association of the Deaf, 2000.


The Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada
606 – 251 Bank Street, Ottawa, ON K2P 1X3
(613) 565-2882