Older people need connection, not just physical safety

The UK-based Mental Health Foundation organises Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year has the theme of loneliness. STEP is acutely aware of the impact of loneliness on not just people’s emotional well-being but also their financial security. We covered the issue of predatory marriage in a recent issue of the STEP Journal.

Older people are more likely to live alone in the family home and are frequently reluctant to move to community living, such as a care home, where risks could arguably be better managed.

Thankfully the Courts have acknowledged the desire of people to maintain independence in later life as evidenced by Peter Jackson J’s statement in Re M [2013] EWHC 3456 (Court Of Protection), regarding a woman, M, who wanted to leave the care home and return to live in her own home:

‘In the end, if M remains confined in a [care] home she is entitled to ask, “What for?” The only answer that could be provided at the moment is ‘To keep you alive as long as possible.’ In my view that is not a sufficient answer. The right to life and the state’s obligation to protect it is not absolute and the court must surely have regard to the person’s own assessment of her quality of life. In M’s case there is little to be said for a solution that attempts, without any guarantee of success, to preserve for her a daily life without meaning or happiness and which she, with some justification, regards as insupportable.’

The UK Dementia Research Institute (DRI) Care Research and Technology Centre are working to address the risk of falls in the home. Falls often result in a hospital admission that precipitates further deterioration in the person’s health, then requiring a care home admission.

A range of new cost-effective gadgets spot deterioration in a person before any fall occurs. This includes sensors to detect and send out an alert when a person is no longer moving around their home in their usual way, when they stop opening the fridge or when their bathroom use indicates the onset of a urinary tract infection.

All of this is to be welcomed. But while it keeps people safer, does it replace human interaction? Loneliness affects all ages and makes us miserable. For older people who live alone, particularly if access to their community is restricted by health or money, loneliness is even more toxic.

Last year we saw the case of BU, a woman in in her 70s with vascular dementia, who lived alone. Her family believed she had been groomed by NC who they described as ‘a serial offender who has a history of targeting the vulnerable for financial gain’. Indeed, the Official Solicitor’s position was that NC was, on the evidence, a confidence trickster whose lifestyle appears to have involved repeatedly inveigling money from vulnerable people through coercive control and blackmail.

NC had moved in to live with BU, and was believed to be trying to liquidate around GBP700,000 of BU’s savings. NC made it clear that it was his intention to enter into a civil partnership with BU.

Against the backdrop of these concerns, Roberts J made an order providing that there be no contact between NC and BU, expressed to continue until further order, but subject to any review that may become necessary.

BU was safeguarded financially but in a written statement, she told the Court: ‘everyone needs a companion and I had thought I had found mine, everything was sorted and then my family got involved and ruined everything’.

While predatory marriage cases can seem to focus on money and lost inheritances, this case exposes the human cost of harmful relationships that can arise from loneliness and our natural desire for human companionship. BU had a loving family, but inevitably they were busy living their own lives too.

Keeping people physically safe is not enough. We need to address the equally devastating impact of loneliness. This Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s have the important conversation.

Sheree Green TEP, Director, Greenchurch Legal Services

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