01/20/2012 04:30 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Sexual abuse in New Brunswick seniors home sign of neglected problem: experts

Jean-Paul Mazerolle runs a nursing home in New Brunswick that spent eight weeks last year trying to end the sexual touching of elderly residents by four men with Alzheimer's disease, yet he's doubtful the home has put an end to the problem.

The fondling has stopped, but Mazerolle said he's learned it's difficult to predict if another resident will start the same behaviour.

"We can be vigilant. We can monitor. But to tell you it won't happen? I can't tell you it's not going to happen," said Mazerolle, who is director of the Villa Maria home in the village of St.-Louis-de-Kent, a village north of Moncton.

Between Aug. 18 and Oct. 16, 2010, there were nine separate incidents of sexual abuse at the Villa Maria, say records obtained by The Canadian Press under freedom of information legislation from New Brunswick's Department of Social Development.

A department protocol defines sexual abuse as "any act involving unwanted touching/activity of a sexual nature ...." It also says abuse includes sexual assault, sexual harassment or any act designed to use the resident for the perpetrator's sexual gratification.

Mazerolle said the incidents involved the four men with varying degrees of Alzheimer's, two of them in wheelchairs, inappropriately touching or fondling other residents at the 73-bed home.

The government report says the situation at the home is now under control.

Mazerolle said the number of incidents escalated from one case of inappropriate touching in August to two more cases in September and them jumped to six cases in October.

After the first case, Mazerolle said the adult protection division of the Department of Social Development was called in.

"But then we had quite a few (incidents) and we were saying, 'Whoa there. What's going on?' "

Mazerolle said after meeting with officials from the province, the home ordered wheelchairs with locks to prevent the men moving from their rooms. A locked half-door was also added to one man's room, which restricted his movement.

There was also temporary provincial funding that allowed for an additional 14 hours a day of staffing, he said.

Social Development Minister Susan Stultz said in an interview that in cases of sexual abuse the province will separate victims of abuse from perpetrators and the department will fund additional staffing to monitor people committing the abuse.

She declined to comment specifically on Villa Maria's cases.

"We can't talk about specific cases because of the privacy legislation and confidentiality of our clients," she said.

However, experts on care of the elderly and Alzheimer's say such problems can be addressed with improved training on behavioural issues related to the disease and with improved staff levels on permanent basis.

Jane Meadus, a spokeswoman for the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly in Toronto, viewed the records on Villa Maria and spoke generally about more staff being needed in care homes.

"It's a big problem and I think it's going to get bigger and a lot of it requires more eyes on the floor," she said.

David Harvey, director of policy at the Alzheimer Society of Ontario, also saw the records and said generally, improving training for staff on Alzheimer's disease can help reduce the incidents of unwanted touching.

Using a hypothetical example, he said staff can sometimes predict when someone is more prone to act inappropriately:"In the case of sexual behaviour it could be after a person has visitors and the person might feel lonely ... you might be inclined to provide that person with an immediate occupation rather than leaving them feeling lonely."

Mazerolle said the home received training from the province on handling abuse at the time of the incidents.

Cecile Cassista, president of the Coalition for Seniors and Nursing Homes Residents' Rights in New Brunswick, said plans to prevent abuse should be done and be made available to the public.

"It will always continue if you don't have an action plan, if you don't remedy the situation," she said.

Jamie Howie, a senior official with the department's adult protection division in New Brunswick, said when there are several people being investigated it may take longer to understand what happened.

"One of the challenges would be if you have three or four different abusers, individuals suffering from different kinds of dementia, it would make interviewing difficult," he said in an interview.

Reports obtained under freedom of information legislation show cases of sexual abuse went up in New Brunswick between 2008-09 and 2010-11, from 12 to 21 cases. The incidents at Villa Maria were responsible for much of the jump.

Howie said he couldn't provide breakdowns on how many of the cases involved patients with Alzheimer's disease, and the majority of substantiated cases defined as "sexual abuse" in the list were for inappropriate touching.

The government says it has referred cases to the police, but it wouldn't say if any of the 21 cases between 2008-09 and 2010-11 were among them.