Judge criticises 'inhuman' separation of elderly couples

Elderly couple holding handsImage source, Getty Images

Separating elderly couples against their wishes when one or both move to care homes must end, Britain's most senior family judge has said.

Sir James Munby said it was "simply inhumanity" that couples who have spent decades together can be separated in their final years, the Times reports.

In a speech on Tuesday he said such practices could be fatal.

He urged social workers to apply a "common decency test" and do more to keep couples together.

Broken heart

Sir James, the president of the family division of the High Court, said it was "absolutely shocking and a profound indictment of our society" that elderly, vulnerable couples who wanted to live together were sometimes refused shared accommodation and told, "you're going to go here, you're going to go there".

Speaking at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) conference in Stafford, Staffordshire, he said he believed separation from a lifelong companion could be fatal.

"We do know that people die from what colloquially we call a broken heart," he said.

"It is very striking. One reads... cases where one spouse, after a 60 or 50-year marriage, has died and the other dies two days later.

"That is not chance or coincidence, I suspect."

Image source, Not Specified

'I warned social care'

Image source, Jonathan Delorme
Image caption,
Tony Delorme died within a month of being separated from his wife, Peggy

Jonathan Delorme said his parents, Tony and Peggy, from Eastbourne, East Sussex, were separated by care workers after spending more than 70 years together.

Jonathan said his father developed Alzheimer's and died, aged 95, within a month of their separation.

"The last thing he said to me at the hospital was he loved us both, but he knew he was about to die.

"I had warned the care homes and adult social care, and they refused to listen."

Jonathan said his mother turned 101 on Sunday.

"I am 100% positive if they had not been separated they would both probably still be together," he added.

Image source, Not Specified

Councils arrange care home places for some 200,000 older people in England.

Couples can become separated when they have differing care needs or when places in care homes are too limited to accommodate them both.

Those who pay for their care privately can choose where they receive it.

Sir James called on social workers to focus less on procedures and consider whether separating elderly couples or moving someone from their home was in some cases wrong.

"Does it accord with the ordinary concept of humanity, empathy, decency? If it does, all right.

"If it doesn't, you need to go back and ask yourself whether it is justifiable."

Complex issues

Margaret Willcox, president of Adass, said social workers worked hard to safeguard the rights of older people and keep them together if that was what they wanted.

"There are always complex issues to consider, such as how to make this work where relationships are abusive, or when one person in the couple has needs the other can't cope with," she added.

"Social care frequently involves helping people during some of the most difficult times of their lives and the importance of social workers and social care needs to be more widely recognised."

Caroline Abrahams, charity Director at Age UK, said couples who wanted to stay together should be allowed to do so, except in rare situations.

"When councils arrange care for an older person they have a legal duty to ensure it meets their needs.

"They have to take into account their psychological needs, as well as how any arrangements will respect their right to family life under the Human Rights Act."

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