Vulnerable elders: A harrowing story and the lessons which need to be learnt

I was really shocked and immensely saddened to read this piece over Christmas – ‘My elderly father found a new partner – then vanished from my life’ – BBC News.

Carolyn Stephens’ 78 year old, widowed father met a new partner on holiday in 2012. This encounter triggered a period of growing isolation, and eventually estrangement, from his daughter, with whom we are told he previously had a close and loving relationship. The story includes financial abuse of the elderly and a potential predatory marriage.

However, the most upsetting passages recount how communication between Carolyn and her father was purposefully sabotaged by the new partner to the point where contact ceased altogether, against Carolyn’s wishes. Her father’s new partner subsequently died, but by that time there was no trace of Carolyn’s father, or confirmation of whether he remained alive.

Carolyn began a painstaking search of the electoral roll and, in late 2022 finally located her father. Unbeknown to Carolyn, he had been placed in a home in 2020; she recounts how the staff there had little knowledge of his background, hobbies, family, friends and he had few personal effects in the home. For someone suffering with dementia, it must have been a frightening existence. Carolyn was at long last reunited with him; by this stage, his dementia was so advanced he could only shout “surprised!” and wave his arms in the air. He died six months later.

It is truly heartbreaking to hear that someone lost vital final years with their beloved father, and particularly anguishing to consider that he may not even have understood why his daughter no longer saw him. It is also shocking that this took place despite his close relationship with his daughter and other family and friends and their shared concern regarding his mental health and potential exploitation.

There are many things to take from this story:

  1. Had Carolyn’s father made financial and health Lasting Powers of Attorney appointing his daughter as his attorney, Carolyn would have been empowered throughout this dreadful ordeal; one of the major problems was that she had no authority to ask for information regarding his financial or health concerns which enabled the estrangement to occur despite Carolyn’s best efforts to the contrary. In the modern world, family cannot assume they will remain “in the loop” simply on account of their relationship. The story reports that subsequent powers of attorney were granted to the new partner, but these in and of themselves would not have revoked earlier powers in favour of Carolyn.
  2. Did the father have capacity to make new powers of attorney in respect of the new partner? It sounds as if he did not. The story did not report on whether the Court of Protection was involved, but concerns could have been raised regarding his new partner and would have been subject to a thorough investigation: Report a concern about an attorney, deputy or guardian – GOV.UK ( Had the Court of Protection found abuse by the new partner, her power of attorney would have been revoked and Carolyn could have been appointed as a deputy in her place. The Court of Protection’s vital role in protecting our elderly is not visible enough to the general public and needs a greater spotlight.
  3. There are proposed changes to how Lasting Powers of Attorney can be made. Will these make it even easier for such abuse to take place in the future?
  4. Could any assets inherited by Carolyn’s father from his wife (Carolyn’s mother) have been better protected by use of trusts? This could have limited financial abuse by the new partner.
  5. Fortunately no predatory marriage took place in the story due to a diligent registrar. However, there are not enough legal or practical safeguards against this; something that the Predatory Marriage UK campaign (Predatory Marriage UK – Reforming marriage laws and procedures to protect people with dementia) is looking to address.

As a society, we need to do better in protecting the vulnerable elderly. So many people had contact with Carolyn’s father during this period – whether collectively, or individually, their efforts should have prevented this from happening. The “private client” responses above are not a cure-all, but all should be aware of what legal protections are available to help to prevent exploitation and abuse of the elderly.

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