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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Senior with dementia attacks wife with hammer

Last week I spent some time working with an older couple (90 and 87 years old) who have no family or close friends nearby. The wife had a stroke and was taken to hospital. Around the same time, the husband caught pneumonia and was taken to a different hospital. Each of them had named the other as their health-care decision-maker as well as their financial power of attorney. With each of them out of commission, both of them were left with nobody to help them.

This lack of contact with other people is dangerous to older people. Sometimes it leads to the situation I've described above, or other less than ideal situations. For example, seniors might live in their homes with advanced dementia without the proper safeguards, which could be dangerous in a hundred ways. I was very saddened to read this article from the Vancouver Sun which says that an elderly man attacked his wife with a hammer, injuring her severely. They were both suffering from advanced dementia, blindness and deafness according to the article. The wife was taken to the hospital and the husband was taken into police custody.

Who knows what led to the attack. We may never know. All I know is that this poor woman should not have had to suffer this injury, and that an old, blind, deaf man with dementia isn't going to get what he needs in jail. I find the whole story very sad, particularly as I'm sure there are many, many other stories like this just waiting to happen.

Two older people with both physical and mental problems should not be living alone. I don't yet know enough about this case to know whether they have family members who could have stepped in, or whether they had other in-home supports. It's possible they do have family but stubbornly refused to accept help. Most of us know someone who shouldn't live alone but who is too stubborn, fearful or confused to accept the needed assistance.

What if they were alone in the world, as are my clients that I mentioned?  My clients had understood years ago that one of them was going to outlive the other, and had named the trust company where I work as the executor of their estates. When they both landed in hospital, they really didn't know where else to turn so they called us. We were able to visit both of them in hospital, pay their bills, pass messages between them and help them get on a waiting list for an assisted living facility. Not everyone thinks to do this or can afford it. And many just simply refuse to think about what could go wrong.

Each of us needs to be protective about the seniors in our lives and proactive in offering help. This includes understanding that it's dangerous and frightening for people with dementia, especially when that condition is aggravated by physical ailments, to live alone. This idea begs the qustion of whether it is acceptable to force help on older people who refuse it. I believe that sometimes it is ok, when it removes a senior from a dangerous situation.

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