Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal
"Know Your Rights-Just Say No"

Conference on Seniors Rights Co-sponsored by the Institute
Montreal 30 June 2004  

A doctor and a social worker from the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) recently raised serious concerns about the number of elderly people who are being financially exploited.

Dr. Henry Olders, a geriatric psychiatrist, and Sharon Freedman, a social worker for 28 years, also suggested at a public conference on the issue that the Office of the Public Curator (PC) is not as vigilant and accountable as it should be in the management of the affairs of people deemed incompetent. Moreover, there is no effective oversight of the PC’s operations, and legal recourse is complicated and takes too long, they said.

Freedman and Beryl Wajsman, President of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal, co-chaired the conference, sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women and the Institute, at the Gelber Conference Centre.

The forum provided a rare open dialogue between health-care professionals and the community, and a representative of the PC, Katherine Frechette. Also on the panel were Constance Leduc of the Quebec Human Rights Commission, Jean Claude Paquet of the Quebec Ombudsman’s Office, and lawyer Jean Pierre Menard, who specializes in elder abuse cases.

Frechette said since 1999-2000 (following critical reports by the ombudsman and the auditor-general), the PC has improved its performance. Before, “people were not really trained and had too much to do,” she said.

Freedman related the case of an elderly woman with advanced dementia who entered a hospital with pneumonia. She had no family or other person with an interest in her, and was under the PC for 10 years. When it came time to discharge her, Freedman tried to arrange for her accommodation and other basic needs, such as clothing.

Freedman said she tried unsuccessfully to learn from the PC what the woman’s assets were, which would determine whether she went to a foster home or a better residence.

“The PC refused to issue a financial statement or give any indication of her wealth due to confidentiality. When I asked about clothes, I was told to go to garage sales or bazaars.

“When she died, we were finally informed that she had $3 million. I’ve had several cases like that. Instead of their money being spent on a desirable lifestyle, they live below the poverty line.”

Because she had no will, the estate will be held for 10 years by the government or until a legitimate claim is made. If no claim is received, the funds go into the public treasury.

Freedman said professionals like social workers, who are also bound by client confidentiality, should be told what people like this woman have.

Frechette insisted it is a “conflict of interest” to tell those working with clients their worth. Nowadays, however, the PC tries to meet with workers within a month of a client’s coming under curatorship, to map out a budget, she said.

Since 2000, the PC is required to issue a summary of income and expenditures for the year upon request by the client, a relative or “any other person who has shown a special interest,” with the exception of professional workers.

Freedman pointed out an incompetent person is not going to ask for a financial statement, and if they have no one else, it makes sense that professionals responsible for their care have access to this information.

Olders countered that the conflict of interest may lie in having a government agency, the PC, managing money that, if not spent on the client, may eventually go into government coffers. “Should it just be the PC that makes decisions on what the person can afford, or is there a better way to supervise?”

Olders illustrated how unresponsive the PC cam be. An 83-year-old man who had no relatives was admitted with a hip fracture. He is a Holocaust survivor with a psychiatric history and has mild Alzheimer’s.

It appeared he was being exploited by a paid companion who has power of attorney, is his mandatory and his heir. She urged doctors to have him declared incompetent.

Olders found out she had “insinuated” herself into his life, initially offering her services for free, then put herself on a “generous” salary and moved the man from a “luxury residence to a cheaper unlicensed home.”

A “régime de protection” was submitted to the PC, which is a request that it intervene. Olders said for eight months, nothing happened. The man died seven weeks after the PC entered the picture.

The PC, Olders said, only required the companion to pay for the funeral. She then inherited “several hundred thousand dollars.”

Olders believes the PC did not act “within a reasonable time,” as the law requires. “In private industry, if people screw up, they get fired. In government, that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Frechette said the PC cannot act unless the person is deemed incompetent. But if a suspicious case is brought to its attention, it has a legal responsible to conduct a “mini-inquiry.”

Paquet said the ombudsman is a “watchdog” of the PC, but it can only make recommendations to the National Assembly. It cannot take action itself.

“Significant effort has been made to improve the PC’s administration, but a lot remains to be done,” he said. “It needs manpower and resources to do its job.”

Among the recommendations in the PC’s current report is that staff get to know their clients and their needs, and that it use its investigative powers to prevent problems.

Leduc said Human Rights Commission investigations take “some weeks to some months,” and it may be as long as 15 months before a decision is made. The commission gives priority to physical neglect over financial abuse cases, she said.

Menard added that once in court, cases can take “years.”

Frechette said she was responsible for 600 clients when she started working for the PC in 2000. “It’s now a little better… but we still need more people.” The goal, she said, is to see clients once a year, with priority given to those living alone.

“We want to know their needs better, but need the collaboration of everybody – their family or those who work with them. When we ask, the answer we receive most often is they need nothing; they are in hospital. That’s a lot easier than [relatives or friends] going to see them and check what they need.”

-from Janice Arnold of the Canadian Jewish News