The federal government is introducing legislation that calls for tougher sentences for those convicted of elder abuse.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Minister of State for Seniors Alice Wong announced plans to amend the Criminal Code so that taking advantage of a senior will be considered "an aggravating factor" in a crime. That "aggravating factor" would then be taken into consideration during sentencing.

"We have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, including older Canadians," Nicholson told reporters during the announcement at a seniors centre in Toronto on Thursday.

Nicholson explained the legislation does not call for specific penalties in cases involving the victimization of seniors, but calls on judges to use their discretion in each case.

"It's up to the judge within the offences that the individual has been charged with, to make that determination after they've been found guilty. And that's our job as legislators: to make these provisions, and that's exactly what we've done: make this an aggravating factor that the courts will have to look at," Nicholson told reporters.

He added that it would also be left to a judge to determine whether the victim qualifies as a "senior" and whether their age was a factor in the crime.

Nicholson noted that older adults are vulnerable to being mistreated physically, psychologically, sexually or financially or by neglect.

"This type of abuse can come from strangers, like fraudsters of scam artists, or from those in a position of trust. It can be at the hands of caregivers of even family members," he said.

There were nearly 7,900 seniors who were victims of violent crime in 2009, the government says on the Department of Justice website. Of those crimes, 35 per cent were committed by a family member, 35 per cent were committed by a friend or acquaintance, and 29 per centwere committed by a stranger.

"However, it is difficult to estimate the prevalence and incidence of elder abuse in Canada due to factors such as under-reporting," the department says.

Stella Wasiuk, 83, is now in a safe place, but she recalled years of abuse at the hands of someone she trusted during an interview with CTV News.

"I felt helpless, because I wanted to reach someone, but I didn't know how," she said.

Her caretaker allegedly sold her home, drained her savings and moved Wasiuk into a shabby apartment where she was isolated and alone.

"I couldn't get help anywhere, how could I do it without a telephone?"

A neighbour eventually heard her cries and helped her, and police are currently probing her case.

"I want people to know -- what happened to me could happen to them," said the Toronto resident.

Still, some question if the new legislation could have any impact, since judges already take into account the ages of victims.

"It's not going to make any difference. There's not a judge in this country that doesn't consider the vulnerability of the victim as an aggravating factor," said Winnipeg lawyer Jay Prober.

The seniors' advocacy group CARP has long said that senior abuse is not taken seriously enough by the country's police and court system. They say that in the rare cases where someone is convicted of elder abuse, sentences are often lenient.

Still, critics say throwing abusers in jail for longer periods will do little to fix the problem. NDP seniors critic, Irene Mathyssen, says the roots of abuse often lie in poverty and poor living conditions -- areas she says the Harper government are ignoring.

Also Thursday, the NDP tabled a bill that would automatically register seniors to receive the guaranteed income supplement.

New Democrat MP Laurin Liu says thousands of low-income seniors are missing out on the government top-up because they don't know how to apply and run into administrative hurdles.

Once seniors qualify for the supplement, they can re-apply for it through their income tax forms, thanks to changes the government made in 2007.

With a report from CTV's Richard Madan