By Heather Campbell
Care homes are communities, and like all social environments, there will be interpersonal conflict. Sometimes these clashes will be physical. In rare cases, they will be deadly. Earlier this year, an Ontario man at St. Joseph’s Villa in Hamilton became the latest victim whose life came to such a heartbreaking end. While asleep in his bed, the 86-year-old was beaten by another resident, also in his 80s, who had dementia and a history of responsive behaviours. He was transferred to hospital, but according to family, he never recovered. He passed away in April.
Staff witnessed the assault, but were unable to stop it. An investigation by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care found that the nursing home did not follow protocol and failed to ensure residents were protected from abuse.
Tragedies like this intensify calls for increased oversight, training, and funding. To its credit, in its recent budget, the provincial government announced a new dementia strategy and committed an additional $10 million to Behavioural Supports Ontario, a program created in 2011 to help care providers identify triggers that can lead to aggressive behaviours before they start. This is an important investment that will make long-term care safer for residents, staff and visitors.
But no reasonable amount of money, training or regulation can prevent every incident of aggression. This sad reality was driven home by a B.C. coroner’s investigation into the 2013 death of William May. The 85-year-old died after Jack Furman, his 94-year-old roommate who had severe dementia, attacked him with a shelf. Immediately after the incident, Furman, who had been a member of a special forces team during World War II, appeared confused. Speaking angrily, he referred to “bunkers” and suggested that the nurse was “one of them.” The coroner investigated the death but made no recommendations.
This kind of violence often triggers a criminal justice response. Indeed, Furman was charged with second degree murder, and placed in an acute psychiatric facility as part of his bail. The Crown eventually stayed the charge, concluding that it wasn’t in the public interest to prosecute the veteran given that he was likely unfit to stand trial. Furman died in palliative care two months later.
More recently, 76-year-old Peter Brooks was convicted of second degree murder in the beating death of Jocelyn Dickson at a Scarborough care home. Brooks had moderate dementia, which resulted in disinhibition and poor impulse control. In January, he was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 10 years.
Most people with dementia will not commit a crime. However, as the population ages, we cannot ignore the increasing presence of dementia at all stages of the criminal justice system. Despite this growing problem, no government, at any level, has tackled the crime and dementia file.
To be sure, some good work is being done at the community level. For instance, the Guelph Police partnered with the local Alzheimer’s Society on an initiative to reduce the number of people with dementia who become involved with the criminal justice system.
But initiatives and investments in prevention will only get us so far. We must also ensure that, when someone with dementia does fall on the wrong side of the law, the criminal justice system is prepared to manage their unique needs.
With its new strategy, Ontario is well-placed to be the first government to prioritize dementia as a criminal justice issue. No approach will solve every challenge, but through a coordinated effort with its federal counterpart, Ontario can set the groundwork for jurisdictions across Canada to improve how the criminal justice system manages people affected by this terrible disease. Such vulnerable members of society deserve nothing less.
Heather Campbell is director of the Dementia Justice Society of Canada, and a PhD student in law at Queen’s University. Her thesis is on people with dementia who are charged with murder.