Editor's Desk - The elderly deserve more protection

In November 2005, Helena Munroe was whisked away, under false pretenses, from her Nova Scotia home by her brother. Claiming his sister was unhappy, he secretly took Helena, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, back to his home in Scotland. It would be 19 months before her husband, Sandy Munroe, would be able to see her again. And even now, it will be at least two years — and a long and arduous battle — before she returns home to Nova Scotia. Just days before we went to press, it was announced that Helena would soon be returning to Canada on the heels of a British panel, formed under a law designed to protect vulnerable adults, determining Sandy to be her official caregiver and decision-maker.

As a psychologist specializing in Alzheimer’s, Helena knew what lay ahead when she was diagnosed with the disease. She did the right thing: drew up papers designating her power of attorney and preparing a health-care directive long before she was declared mentally incompetent, in May 2005. Her husband would be the one to take care of her, with a close friend as an alternative. Her wishes were set out in official documents. That would have been fine, if her brother hadn’t swooped in and jetted off with her to the U.K. Once Helena was moved beyond Canada’s borders, her wishes, as outlined in those documents, essentially became unenforceable.

Her husband pleaded to have the brother charged criminally with kidnapping. Nothing happened. He fought in Canadian and British courts to get her back. Nothing worked. Sandy, along with the help of Canadian diplomats, finally located her again in a psychiatric hospital in northern England in February 2006.

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It was still months before he could see Helena. And still, he had to prove to the panel and an independent mental capacity advocate to prove that he was her official caregiver. An arduous and lengthy process that shouldn’t have been necessary if the power of attorney and health-care directive documents prepared in Nova Scotia carried any weight across borders.

The case, as outlined in our Legal Report on Wills and Estates on page 49, highlights the need for changes in legislation to protect vulnerable adults from ending up in similar situations, particularly as the number of elderly people in society is increasing. Within Canada there is a trend toward having documents created in one jurisdiction recognized in another, but outside the boundaries of Canada, there’s practically no protection.

The Hague Convention on International Protection of Adults was struck in 2000 yet very few countries in the world have signed on — Canada is not one, neither is the U.S. — even though 40 countries were part of the negotiations leading to the agreement. So far, ratification of the convention has not been much of a priority for the “new” Conservative government. Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who is from Nova Scotia, has taken a personal interest in Helena Munroe’s case. He is a powerful member of the current government and perhaps his involvement in the resolution of this affair will prompt him to push for more action on the federal front.

With Canada being a nation of immigrants who have family all over the world, and the numbers of older people growing, Canada needs to create legislation to protect vulnerable adults that put into law the recognition of their written wishes so they are applied evenly across the country, but also move forward on international agreements that would extend those same protections.

It may not be the sexiest issue out there, but our mother and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers deserve at least that much from our politicians.

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