There is a reason people are declared legally incompetent. It is for their own protection. At that stage in life, they are not able to take care of their personal needs or finances. Other people step in to assume those roles as they remove themselves from public and personal responsibilities.
At least that is the way it works everywhere, except in the Canadian Senate.
In February, a psychiatrist determined that Alberta Senator Joyce Fairbairn, 73, was mentally incompetent from Alzheimer’s. By April, she had signed a power of attorney turning over her affairs to others. Yet Fairbairn continued to vote on bills in the Senate up until late June.
Her party, the Liberals, has announced that she will not be coming back for the September session. Her term does not expire until 2014. Presumably, the Liberal leadership decided that they could not ignore Fairbairn’s illness that long.
As it was, she was allowed to vote 12 times since April and authorize $43,000 in expenditures for her office.
As anyone who has witnessed a person’s descent into Alzheimer’s knows, it usually occurs over months or years of progressively deteriorating abilities. If a psychiatrist realized that she was incompetent in February, then she was operating on diminished mental abilities for a long time before that.
For the Liberal leadership everything seemed to be going just fine since she voted the party line every time.
Fairbairn’s increasingly diminishing capabilities should have been obvious to her colleagues of all political persuasions, staff, constituents and journalists. Keeping up the charade that she is still capable of participating in political affairs is an insult to the political process and does nothing to preserve Fairbairn’s dignity.
Even after months, it was not her colleagues who initiated the need to remove her from Senate abilities, but her niece, who finally said enough was enough.
As the Times-Colonist reports:
It is unclear when the Liberals knew about the diagnosis, but by April, the top aide to Liberal Senate leader James Cowan had cosigned a declaration giving him and Fairbairn’s niece power of care, essentially giving the two power of attorney over Fairbairn’s personal care, according to a letter from [Patricia] McCullagh.
McCullagh, Fairbairn’s closest relative, wrote to the Clerk of the Senate, Gary O’Brien, in August to warn of the senator’s worsening health, copying the letter to Cowan and Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella.
“As you know, Sen. Fairbairn has dementia of the Alzheimer’s type,” McCullagh wrote. “She has declined significantly over the past year and is no longer able to look after herself, having had 24-hour, full-time care for the past 18 months.”
If Fairbairn needed full-time care since early 2011, then she has spent years in declining mental health. This is not what Canadians are expecting of their elected officials.
With an aging population nearly everywhere in the world, there are probably a lot more cases like this. In the US, many elected officials serve well into their 80s. Many do quite well, but some decline physically and mentally to where they should not hold office.
It is scandalous that those in positions of leadership allow less than fully capable people to hold office as their mental health declines. Yet it seems that as long as the leadership can walk the ill through their duties like robots, then everything is fine because the votes are going the right way.
There is nothing for Fairbairn to be ashamed of in this situation. Her illness is beyond her control. For the rest of the Canadian Senate, that is another matter.