Fred Van Zuiden, right, and his wife Audrey pose in this undated handout photo. Fred van Zuiden turned 87 last month at a secure psychiatric hospital. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Vince Walker

Aging population challenges justice system

“Our entire criminal justice system needs to come to grips with the fact that everybody is getting older.”

Fred van Zuiden turned 87 last month at a secure psychiatric hospital.

Visitors sang “Happy Birthday” in Dutch, as his English is fading. Cake was allowed, but it had to be served with plastic cutlery and without candles.

Van Zuiden has dementia. In October 2016, Calgary police charged him with second-degree murder in the death of his wife of nearly six decades, Audrey. Loved ones have described them as soulmates.

They say he doesn’t understand why he’s at the Southern Alberta Forensic Psychiatry Centre, which he sometimes mistakes for a homeless shelter or a fancy resort.

He occasionally asks if he has ever been married. Valerie Walker, a longtime friend who grew up with Audrey in the United Kingdom, tells him he did have a spouse, but she died. When he asks how, Walker simply tells him his wife’s heart gave out.

He’ll ask again five minutes later.

“Nothing stays with him for very long.”

Van Zuiden was found unfit to stand trial earlier this year. It’s left him in a state of limbo as the charge remains outstanding.

Alberta Justice says the Crown hasn’t ruled out a stay of proceedings, but won’t do that without a plan to ensure public safety and van Zuiden’s well-being.

“This is such a unique case and it tests both the health system and the justice system significantly,” said Walker’s son, Vince, the van Zuidens’ godson.

It also highlights some of the challenges courts face as Canada’s population ages. Statistics Canada conservatively projects almost one-quarter of Canadians will be over 65 by 2030 compared with 15 per cent in 2013.

“Our entire criminal justice system needs to come to grips with the fact that everybody is getting older,” said Laura Tamblyn Watts, staff lawyer and senior fellow at the Canadian Centre for Elder Law.

“What works for somebody who may be 25 years old just doesn’t work for somebody who’s 85 years old.”

The challenge is broader than just dementia.

“It’s hard to have a right to a fair trial if older people can’t hear the proceedings, can’t see the evidence, are having a hard time remembering the issues against them or are having a hard time accessing services,” she said.

When people are found unfit to stand trial, the assumption normally is that with treatment they will eventually be well enough to face the accusations in court, said Patrick Baillie, a lawyer and forensic psychologist.

“And yet dementia is not going to get better. There is not going to be some time in the future when this individual is able to now understand at a level sufficient to be able to participate in the process,” he said.

“And then you end up with the health-care system saying, ‘Well, but is he some level of risk?’”

The van Zuidens met in Calgary and ran a sailboat business together. They had no children.

Van Zuiden chronicled his experience as a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Holland in his book “Call Me Mom: A Dutch Boy’s WWII Survival Story.” As his family separated and went into hiding, he was shuttled between strangers’ homes and lived in a chicken coop for a time.

Van Zuiden dialled 911 himself in the early morning of Oct. 4, 2016.

A detective broke the news to Walker that her friend was dead.

“All he said was ‘blunt instrument.’ He said, ‘You don’t want to go and see her. I wouldn’t advise it.’”

Walker said it’s possible van Zuiden thought he was under attack.

“When the police talked to him he thought they were Nazis, so he might well have gone back into his previous life.”

She said the officers handled the situation well.

“They treated him kindly and with respect.”

Walker and her son were part of a large contingent that came to court for each of van Zuiden’s appearances.

“Certainly seeing him in court that first time, it was heartbreaking,” said Vince Walker. “So lost.”

People at the hospital where van Zuiden is being housed tend to stay short term for court-ordered psychiatric assessments or long term if they have been found not criminally responsible for an offence.

The first visits to the psychiatry centre were tough.

At first, visitors were only able to interact with van Zuiden through a pane of glass and speaking through a phone. Now at least they can sit together in the dining room. Vince Walker said he wishes he could see his godfather play chess or basketball instead of hearing about it second-hand from staff.

Van Zuiden has been cleared by the Alberta Review Board to be moved to a secure seniors home in Calgary, but there were about a dozen people ahead of him on the waiting list in late November.

Loved ones want the charge to be stayed so that he isn’t remembered as an accused murderer. But if that were to happen, he would no longer be the province’s responsibility and they would be left on their own. Staying at the psychiatry centre may be the best option for him.

“We want what’s best for Fred,” said Valerie Walker.

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Seniors housing in Port Hardy moves ahead with rezoning application

North Island seniors able to “age in place” in new facility, currently getting funding and permits

Port McNeill curling club will be getting a brand new paint job, thanks to residents

‘The generosity of this community never ceases to amaze me!’

Vancouver Island grizzlies: moving in, or just passing through?

Lack of data makes seeming increase in grizzly sightings on the North Island an open question

VIDEO: A young Vancouver Island black bear takes weekend nap in eagle tree

Videos captured by Terry Eissfeldt shows the bear arriving Saturday night and sleeping in on Sunday

North Island students are back in class, sitting six-feet apart

School District 85 schools reopened June 1 for students who want to come in person

B.C. records four new COVID-19 cases, Abbotsford hospital outbreak cleared

Four senior home outbreaks also declared over, eight still active

Bank of Canada keeps key interest rate target on hold at 0.25%

Central bank now expects GDP to decline between 10 and 20 per cent compared with the fourth quarter of 2019

Friendly Cove and Kyuquot will remain closed until further notice

Transition of other B.C. communities will be monitored before a decision to ease restrictions

Racist incident shocks Vancouver Island First Nation

Port Alberni RCMP investigating after video shows truck wheeling through Tseshaht territory

Gold River organizes a shop local initiative to creatively boost economy

Local purchases can earn shoppers $200 gift certificates to be spent on businesses within Gold River

Young killer whale untangles itself from trap line off Nanaimo shore

DFO marine mammal rescue unit was en route as whale broke free from prawn trap line

RCMP, coroner investigate murder-suicide on Salt Spring Island

Two dead, police say there is no risk to the public

B.C. schools see 30% of expected enrolment in schools as in-class teaching restarts amid pandemic

Education minister noted that in-class instruction remains optional

Trudeau avoids questions about anti-racism protesters dispersed for Trump photo-op

Prime minister says racism is an issue Canadians must tackle at home, too

Most Read