More police funding needed to reduce violence against suspects with dementia
JUNE 15, 2021 - Today is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. An official United Nations International Day, this year's theme is Access to Justice. As some recent police incidents have shown, the criminal justice system can be a site of serious rights violations for older adults with dementia.
Dementia Justice Canada is calling for increased police funding to help officers recognize cognitive impairment and intervene with compassion. We are also renewing our call for the federal government to address criminal justice in the National Dementia Strategy, an area that has been sorely neglected since the plan was launched in 2019.
Police serve and protect society every day, putting their lives on the line to keep us, our families and communities safe. This weekend, we were devastated to hear about the tragic death of Saskatchewan RCMP Const. Shelby Patton, age 26, who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the public. While on duty, he was struck and killed by a stolen truck. We share Premier Scott Moe's sorrow: "Our grief is only matched by our tremendous gratitude to Constable Patton for his service, and to every police officer who serves and protects us every day." We hold the Patton family, and the RCMP and policing community, in our thoughts.
Among their many heroic roles, police are key partners in ensuring the safety and well-being of people with dementia who are experiencing distressing symptoms in the community. Mercifully, many interactions are resolved successfully. In July 2020, for example, North Vancouver RCMP responded to a call from a woman whose husband with dementia was agitated after being stuck at home for three days. Officers calmed the man down and then went on a walk with him.
However, police encounters can sometimes result in negative outcomes.
Last summer, for example, Colorado police violently hogtied a 73-year-old woman with dementia after she left Walmart without paying for items worth $14.
In December 2020, Arizona police arrested and jailed an 81-year-old man for trespassing at a coffeehouse where he had been banned for his dementia-related behaviours. At the station, police mocked him about whether he soiled his diaper.
"The undignified, degrading and violent treatment of suspects with dementia is not just an American problem," wrote Heather Campbell Pope, founder of Dementia Justice Canada, in a recent North Shore News opinion-editorial. "In Canada, as the number of people with the disease increases, a corresponding rise in police interactions with this population is projected."
As pandemic restrictions loosen, the fear of re-entering society may put people with dementia at particular risk of police abuse, as anxiety can make symptoms worse.
Training can make a difference. But this takes money.
"While calls to defund police raise worthy concerns, they clash with efforts aimed at enhancing police de-escalation capacity in dementia-related situations," Campbell Pope wrote. "Under police budget cuts, the ageism that permeates every aspect of society means that elder abuse and dementia programs would likely be among the first to be eliminated."
Expanding access to dementia training holds promise to achieve a society in which suspects with dementia have their rights and dignity respected.
How to help
Dementia Justice Canada is encouraging Canadians to:
For more information about World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, please visit the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse website.
Like many Canadians, I was horrified to read the Canadian Armed Forces report on the medical conditions in five Ontario long-term care homes. Having been in the law and ageing field for 10 years, this type of institutional elder abuse and neglect is familiar to me; nevertheless, it is distressing to hear—each and every incident brings me tremendous sadness.
The individual victims of this broken trust are our parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters. Many have loved ones desperately trying to access them. Others have been abandoned and forgotten, left to languish in nursing homes across the province; some have simply outlived their friends and partners, spending their final years slumped in rows of wheelchairs lining dim hallways and parked in overcrowded TV rooms.
While the conditions detailed in the military report pre-date COVID-19, the current public health crisis has pulled them from the shadows of society and put them into everyone’s plain view. No one can deny that some of our most vulnerable citizens are suffering cruel and inhumane treatment—treatment that not only shocks the conscience of ordinary Canadians, but also violates the rights guaranteed to people of all ages under our country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Every year, WEAAD provides an opportunity for reflection and action. These past few months, as I nurse my newborn son, I have thought about his future—as a teenager, young adult, and hopefully one day, an old man. I am overcome with maternal pang thinking about the possibility of him growing old in a nursing home. In a country like Canada, we can and must do better. It is well past time for action.
As such, over the coming weeks and months, in my personal capacity and as founder of Dementia Justice Canada, I will be uprooting elder abuse and planting the seeds of change by:
1. Supporting legal advocacy organizations like the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms who are willing and able to go to court to defend the Charter rights of long-term care residents.
2. Renewing our call for the Parliament of Canada to amend the National Strategy for Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias Act to:
3. Continuing to encourage the federal Minister of Health to appoint a justice sector representative to the Ministerial Advisory Board on Dementia.
4. Renewing our call for a national dialogue on whether long-term care should be an insured service under the Canada Health Act.
5. Continuing to write op-eds on the rights and wellbeing of persons with dementia, particularly those who are in conflict with the criminal justice system. (See e.g., my recent article with co-author Eddy Elmer in The Hamilton Spectator, Releasing elderly inmates en masse in Canada is misguided).
Building on decades of progress by seniors advocates across the country and around the world, I look forward to advancing the elder rights movement through these small yet hopefully meaningful contributions. Older Canadians, particularly those who are vulnerable and often voiceless, deserve nothing less.
Heather Campbell Pope, BA (Hons.), LLB, LLM
Dementia Justice Canada
To learn more about World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, please visit the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse website.