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

UPDATED: Tofino-Ucluelet highway to open from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday before shutting down for 24 hours

Vehicles will be screened at the Tofino/Ucluelet junction and at Sproat Lake.

UPDATED: Ucluelet and Tofino mayors call for “calmness” and “empathy” as highway closure cuts communities off from supplies

Ministry of transportation expects to open road for “essential travel only” from noon-8 p.m. Friday.

Tofino shakes up emergency notification service

“You can download maps and it has more functionality.”

Dylan Green set to launch B.C.’s first ride-hailing app in Tofino

The Whistle! app will be available in Tofino on Feb.1 and in Whistler Feb. 6.

‘Presumptive case’ of coronavirus in Canada confirmed by Ontario doctors

Man in his 50s felt ill on his return to Canada from Wuhan, China

VIDEO: Drone footage shows extent of damage in Highway 4 rockslide

Tofino, Ucluelet still cut off from rest of the island, as crews work to repair roadway

People knowingly take fentanyl so make policy changes to reduce harm: B.C. study

Dr. Jane Buxton, an epidemiologist at the centre, says drug users need more resources,

‘My heart is going to bleed’: Bodies brought back to Canada following Iran plane crash

Remains of Sahar Haghjoo, 37, and her eight-year-old daughter, Elsa Jadidi, were identified last weekend

UBC grad and sister killed in Iran plane crash had bright futures ahead, close friend says

Asadi-Lari siblings Mohammad Hussein and Zeynab were two of 57 Canadians aboard downed Flight PS752

BCLC opens novelty bet on Harry and Meghan moving to the west coast

Meanwhile, real estate agency points to four possible homes for the family

Canada slips in global corruption ranking in aftermath of SNC-Lavalin scandal

The country obtained a score of 77, which places it at the top in the Americas

Wuhan bans cars, Hong Kong closes schools as coronavirus spreads

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said her government will raise its response level to emergency, highest one

Most Read