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Abbotsford care facility illegally keeping Alzheimer’s patient alive, family argues

People demonstrate outside the B.C. Court of Appeal before a hearing into the federal government’s appeal of the B.C. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the laws making physician-assisted dying illegal, in Vancouver on March 4, 2013.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

An Abbotsford care facility keeping an elderly Alzheimer's patient alive – against her wishes, as expressed in a living will – has no legal grounds to do so, according to one of the authors of provincial health legislation on the matter.

Margot Bentley, 82, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1999 and is now in what the family calls a vegetative state. Eight years before her diagnosis, she had created a living will explicitly stating that, should she ever be in a situation where there is no reasonable expectation of recovery from physical or mental disability, she should be allowed to die.

In documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday, Ms. Bentley's family say staff at the Maplewood House care facility are disregarding her wishes by continuing to spoon-feed her pureed foods. The lawsuit names the facility, the Fraser Health Authority and the province.

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Robert Gordon, one of the authors of the Health Care (Consent) and Care Facility (Admission) Act, said it is clear under the law that Ms. Bentley's wishes should be granted.

"It couldn't be any clearer. I remember drafting it and thinking, 'This has to be etched in stone,' " he said. "A common-sense read would suggest you just don't use this act to try to subvert somebody's pre-expressed wishes. It's just not acceptable."

Ms. Bentley, a former nurse, often saw the decline of patients with dementia and, seeking to have more control of her own life, created a living will in 1991.

"If at such a time the situation should arise that there is no reasonable expectation of my recovery from extreme physical or mental disability," the will stated, "I direct that I be allowed to die and not be kept alive by artificial means or 'heroic measures.' "

Among those measures: "No nourishment or liquids."

Ms. Bentley's family tried to carry out her wishes in November, 2011, but was told by Fraser Health they were not allowed to do so, said Ms. Bentley's daughter, Katherine Hammond. In correspondence with the family, Fraser Health has said it has an obligation to ensure that Ms. Bentley's basic needs, including nourishment, are met.

Fraser Health declined to comment on Wednesday, but said in a general statement "wishes in advance directives that are contrary to the law are invalid and may not be acted on by health providers."

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If there is uncertainty over whether a direction is legal, either party can apply to the court for direction on how to interpret and apply the advance directive, the statement said.

"These kinds of situations exist every day, where doctors comply with their patients' wishes and people in situations just like my mom's are allowed to die," Ms. Hammond said. "It's very difficult for [us] to understand what happened here."

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