RCMP open probe of N.S. nursing home death

A police probe has been launched into the nursing home death of a “sweet” 79-year-old Halifax-area man, as his wife alleges he was pushed by another resident with severe dementia, fell and died later in hospital.

RCMP Cpl. Jennifer Clarke confirmed that Gordon Birchell died at the Ivy Meadows home on Oct. 29 and that police have opened a suspicious death investigation, but she declined to provide any further details.

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READ MORE: 8 have died in NS nursing homes due to violence from other residents since 2008

Joan Birchell, Gordon’s wife, said in an interview that she was told by a staff member that her husband was pushed on Oct. 24 at the home in the Halifax suburb of Beaver Bank by a female resident with severe dementia.

Birchell, 79, says her husband fell, hit his head and was hospitalized at the Cobequid Community Health Centre. He was returned to the home, where he died.

Birchell said her husband, who had an earlier stage of dementia, had been pushed by the same person on repeat occasions, including one occasion when she was present.

“The people who work there were told that … if she comes after him, you’re supposed to stop her from going near him,” she said.

“The public should be informed,” she said, regarding the Health Department’s decision not to release details.

READ MORE: Violent nursing home deaths in Nova Scotia prompt urgent calls for change

The woman also wonders why her husband was returned to the home after his initial treatment at the Cobequid Community Health Centre, rather than receiving further treatment in a larger hospital.

“They took him down to the Cobequid centre and glued his head back together again and … sent him back to the home,” she said.

Tracy Bonner, the administrator of the provincially regulated home — owned and operated by the Halifax-based Stevens Group — confirmed an investigation is underway and declined further comment.

The medical examiner, Dr. Matthew Bowes, said in an email that his office is still investigating the cause of death, while a Health Department spokeswoman said an investigation has been opened under its Protection of Persons in Care legislation into Birchell’s care.

Tracy Barron, the spokeswoman for the Health Department, declined to provide any further details.

In May, reported that to that date eight residents of nursing homes in Nova Scotia have died since 2008 due to aggression from other residents, raising questions about why the majority of the deaths were never publicly disclosed.

The list of death reports were provided through freedom of information requests made to the chief medical examiner, and included deaths at six homes at locations around the province, with some having multiple incidents.

Bonnie Cuming, a friend of Birchell, said she had visited him four days before his death and was shocked to hear he had died when her husband returned to visit on Nov. 11.

READ MORE: Nurse accused of killing 8 people at nursing homes in Ontario

Cuming said Birchell was a native of Newfoundland and Labrador and was a former maintenance worker at the school where her husband had worked.

“He was a nice man, a sweet, sweet man. … We’re just sick that he died in that way,” she said in a telephone interview.

Cuming said the Health Department should make brief notices to the public of pushing deaths that are the result of aggressive outbursts due to dementia.

The Nova Scotia Nurses Union has said on several occasions that the province needs to begin disclosing the nursing home deaths caused by pushing and other outbursts from residents with dementia.

Janet Hazelton, the president of the union, has said that at times there are cases that could have been prevented with additional staff and training.

The union has argued the lack of public discussion of pushing deaths adds to a lack of momentum for reforms that other provinces are already exploring or funding.

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For example, the chief executive of the Ontario Long Term Care Association says a public inquest and recommendations from a committee formed by the Ontario chief coroner has helped bring attention to dementia-based aggression in nursing homes.

The Ontario Liberal government’s last budget provided $10 million a year for three years for programs that can help reduce aggression and other behavioural problems.

In an interview last May, Nova Scotia Health Minister Leo Glavine said he’ll “give every consideration” to changing the province’s current policy of not disclosing the nursing home deaths resulting from pushing and other aggression.

However, in an email, Barron said any consideration to changing the disclosure would only occur as the department develops its “continuing care strategy,” which is a five-year strategy the province expects to launch late next year.

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