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Byron Shire
June 4, 2023

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: When your home is a prison

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Police compassion

Mandy, you said (Echo, 17 May)]: ‘There’s not many 95-year-olds I wouldn’t be able to overpower if necessary’ and...

If nursing homes are calling the police to attend an incident they should be able to manage themselves then something is very wrong. And why are residents, in their often confused and disoriented state feeling pushed to the brink? Isn’t this the place charged with their protection? Why aren’t they being protected?

When a 95-year-old woman is tasered in her nursing home, it’s clear our aged care system is broken. It’s clear also that our policing methods aren’t far behind. Clare Nowland was on a walking frame, she has dementia, and she was clearly frail. Somehow the police ascertained she was a violent threat and tasered her.

I am 55. There’s not many 95 year olds I wouldn’t be able to overpower if necessary. I doubt it would ever be necessary. With the right tone of voice I reckon I could disarm a confused and scared dementia patient with a cup of tea and a chat. I don’t know when the last time was that an assailant came at you with a steak knife, but coupled with a walking frame, it’s a fairly benign threat. So why did the police taser Clare Nowland? How is it even legal to carry a taser in a nursing home? Aren’t our police well trained enough to be able to disarm a 95 year old with a steak knife without the use of a weapon? If I could do it, then surely so could they. They could have simply offered her a steak, and I can guarantee that she would have been distracted. People with dementia forget what they are doing. They are easily moved from one idea to another, from one emotion to another.

There’s currently an inquiry, but we are all shocked at the brutality of the action that caused Clare to sustain such a severe head injury she is now fighting for her life. According to police guidelines a taser can be used ‘to protect yourself or others where violent confrontation or resistance is occuring or imminent.’ They are also able to be used to ‘protect an officer (s) in danger of being overpowered or to protect themselves or another person from risk of actual bodily harm’.

I’ve worked with people with dementia. I never once thought ‘I need a taser for protection’. People with dementia can become confused and distressed. Nursing homes are scary and disorienting places. If you were locked away in an institution full of other confused and distressed people, chances are you might act out. Kindnesses, a soothing voice, human touch, are all techniques that might reassure you. And if that doesn’t work, I guess there’s always mild sedation.

We put our elderly into aged care for their protection when they can no longer care for themselves, or their family can no longer care for them. But it’s clear, many aged care facilities are understaffed, or their staff don’t have sufficient training to cope with the stress. My initial surprise in this story was that police were even called. I’m untrained, but there are many ways to disarm a 95 year old on a walking frame. One is to just leave her alone. Put others into safety and leave her be. Chances are she’ll forget what she’s doing and go back to her room.

In the aftermath of this incident at Cooma another popped up on my newsfeed, detailing the story of an 81-year-old woman with dementia who was detained by six police officers – and two sets of handcuffs – when she took a lanyard from a staff member at a Sydney nursing home. I checked which nursing home. It’s where my mother-in-law is. I’ve been there many times. It’s not some dingy facility. This place took a million dollar bond. The residents aren’t rich, the facilities just take advantage of the lucrative real estate market that has modest family homes fetching millions. Why would you call the police to get a lanyard off a 45-kilo woman? And why would it take six police? It’s overreach. It’s brutal. It’s failure. It’s a nursing ‘home’, not a nursing ‘prison’. These places are supposed to be the final place of residence. The people living there are vulnerable. They are not criminals. So why are we suddenly criminalising the elderly?

If nursing homes are calling the police to attend an incident they should be able to manage themselves then something is very wrong. And why are residents, in their often confused and disoriented state feeling pushed to the brink? Isn’t this the place charged with their protection? Why aren’t they being protected? And most importantly – why are they so desperate and unhappy?

We have to do so much better. Nursing homes shouldn’t be run like prisons. And the police, if ever called, need to be trained to operate with kindness and compassion. And here’s an idea: No tasers, or handcuffs, in a nursing home. 

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  1. Most tellingly – the police commissioner – Karen Webb – has refused to see the body cam footage. She has stated it wont change her mind. How can she have made up her mind without a viewing of whats happened..? How can she have any oversight of the police force at all , if she is not even prepared to take a visual interest in what they do..? Yes – she’s not the investigator, but she is the most senior manager. Surely – as manager she has to actually see what goes on to make any management decisions at all, would she not..? It may be that the rot starts at the top and works down from there.

  2. Yes, both accounts are very distressing, mainly because they foreshadow the possible futures we all face.

    Medical science (as opposed to frog secretions) is working so well that it is exacerbating the downward trajectory of the aged care crisis that was given a solid kick start by John Howard’s privatisation initiatives.

    But perhaps tell us Mandy, the steps you would take immediately to reverse the trajectory. To provide the numbers of high quality state run facilities with all the skilled staff necessary to deal with the challenges of the myriad distressing behaviour changes that dementia can cause. Which shouldn’t be trivialised by suggesting they can all be overcome with a pat on the hand and a cuppa.

    Additionally an inexperienced young copper shouldn’t have to face the fall out and trauma either for the rest of his/her life. Like the area of mental health provision, our police force shouldn’t be called in to deal with the extreme ends of society’s shortfalls.

    I know we can all be cynical about police investigations but perhaps give it a chance to illicit all/some of the surrounding facts before jumping to conclusions or making political mileage.

  3. Very politely said, Mandy. I’d go further and suggest that a lot of today’s police are poorly trained and have attitudes that might fit into certain video games. Incompetent and rogue: these words come to mind. While they are, I believe, in the minority, they control the headlines and they need to be massively retrained or dismissed from the service. There can be no excuse for that type of behaviour.

  4. The police should never investigate themselves. It creates a culture of unaccountability, the public eventually lose faith and trust in the police , and then the police have truly failed in their job.

  5. Well I don’t know all the facts, and I doubt you do either Mandy.

    But we were informed that the aged care staff rang the police – and do you think the police were just hanging around the aged care facility waiting for an opportunity to be involved?

    So perhaps you can direct your outrage at the aged care staff who felt they could not deal with their own resident without police intervention.

  6. Whether “the rot starts at the top and works down from there.” is true or not, the facts are that,
    This action was carried out under her authority as the Commissioner.
    Unless it is proved that this murder was carried out by this ‘officer’ in total disregard of his direction and training and is sentenced to decades behind bars, then in view of her position, she is personally responsible for the murder of a 95-year-old, harmless dementia patient.
    Presumably, she will be forced to view the footage of the actions she is responsible for at her trial.
    Cheers, G”)

  7. i would say 90% of active police officers dont need a taser or a gun for their duties i saw a crash invitigation officer exit his vehicle marked crash investigation he looked like he was going to attend a riot why should the police need a taser or gun when attending a nursing home
    Disarm the police they see us as nails and obviously have far to many hammers to choose from.

  8. Well said , Mandy . Every word. I reckon even if the knife had been thrown at the copper it would have been with near-zero force and either wouldn’t have reached him or if it did he could have dodged it…Someone above mentioned ” an inexperienced young copper” but in this case it was an officer with 12 years experience. Sure we don’t know all the facts yet , but on the surface it sure looks as if the poor old woman could have been safely disarmed without any weapons or drama. Also a mystery how come the centre staff couldn’t manage it without calling the cops.


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