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Senate's dementia case raises questions

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OTTAWA -- Canada's Senate made headlines last week for a number of reasons.

Manitoba's own Rod Zimmer was in the spotlight after his wife was arrested for causing a disturbance on an airplane and allegedly threatening to slit his throat.

But Zimmer's troubles -- while sensational in nature -- have nothing to do with his role as a senator. Public criticism of his decision to marry someone 46 years his junior may be strong, but he didn't break the law unless marrying or dating someone younger than you is suddenly a crime.

Former Manitoba senator Sharon Carstairs said Zimmer's troubles should have no impact on the Senate and she's right.

"I'm more concerned about the story of Joyce Fairbairn than I am Rod Zimmer," said Carstairs, who retired from the Senate last year.

Fairbairn, 73, has been a senator since 1984. She was appointed to represent Alberta by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. She has been a strong advocate for people with disabilities in her time in the Senate and is recognized as one of the hardest-working and most effective senators the red chamber has seen.

For more than a year, however, Fairbairn's Senate colleagues were aware something wasn't right.

In February, a geriatric psychiatrist signed a "declaration of incompetence" for Fairbairn. On Aug. 13, her niece wrote to Senate officials to let them know Fairbairn would not be returning to work because of the illness. The letter mentioned both the declaration of the psychiatrist and that in April, the niece and Leonard Kuchar, the chief of staff to Liberal Senate Leader James Cowan, had co-signed a "power of care" document, allowing them to be jointly responsible for Fairbairn.

There was a rapid rush to judgment. How was it Cowan could have allowed Fairbairn to continue her duties, make decisions about her office expenses and most importantly, vote a dozen times on legislation that includes the budget?

The situation raises many other questions. What obligation did Fairbairn or her family have to inform the Senate of her illness? At what point did the public deserve to know? And how is it a senator can go on sick leave when the reality is she will never return to the job?

Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, chair of the Senate committee that oversees administration of the upper chamber, said Monday the Senate is seeking legal advice on how to handle the situation and what it means for the upper chamber.

Technically, Fairbairn can remain on sick leave until November 2014, when she reaches mandatory retirement. If she misses two sessions in a row the Senate could vote to declare her seat vacant but the odds of that happening before her retirement are slim.

It's not entirely clear why Fairbairn hasn't simply retired. She would collect a generous pension of 75 per cent of her $132,000 salary. She could have left the Senate and be remembered only by the good she did there. Instead, her legacy will be marked with questions about ethical obligations and whether she was competent enough to run her office or vote a dozen times at the end of her time in the Senate.

For an institution that is already drowning in ill will from Canadians who wonder what its purpose is, nothing about this situation is helpful.

What's also at issue, however, is how we treat the issue of Alzheimer's and dementia. It's a growing problem and it's not a disease that is well understood by most.

Over the week since Fairbairn's condition became public, experts have said a declaration of incompetence may not mean she was incompetent in every capacity. She may have been functioning well enough to handle the work in the Senate but not without some help for her day-to-day activities. When it became clear she could no longer handle the work, perhaps that is when her niece stepped in to say enough.

Alzheimer's is a brutal illness but it does not mean one loses ability to function in every way at once.

The Alzheimer's Society of Canada estimates by 2038 between 1.1 million and 1.3 million Canadians will be living with dementia. Carstairs, who spent most of her time in the Senate and the time since focused on issues of aging and palliative care, said this situation shows it's high time Canada develop a national strategy for Alzheimer's.

Perhaps that would give families, and even senators, a road map to follow when the tragedy of dementia strikes.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2012 A8

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