Stella Hamilton, 72, spent the last 6 months of her life as a resident on the dementia wing at an aged care facility in Malanda, south-west of Cairns.

She was found deceased in her room on the 31st of July, 2016, but was unconscious and expected to pass away in the days leading up to the discovery of her body.

While this is obviously a distressing time for a loved one, this is a fairly inconspicuous and everyday occurrence within the walls of an aged care facility.

But upon closer inspection, this was anything but the average case, of ‘old age getting the better of someone.’

The coroners inquest which was held today where the following issues were considered.

1. Namely the identity of the deceased, when, where and how she died and what caused her death;
2. Whether any persons contributed to her death;
3. The adequacy of security procedures including monitoring the movement of residents and visitors in and around
the Malanda aged care facility; and
4. Whether recommendations can be made that relate to public health and safety and/or to prevent deaths from
happening in similar circumstances in the future pursuant to s 46 of the Coroners Act 2003.

The inquest into the death of Ms Hamilton was told by a nurse, that she overheard comments from one of Ms Hamilton’s family members stating that “If they cover her head she would asphyxiate.” In the days leading up to her death.

While this type of remark may sound like the type of simple warning that any family would make, the fact that Ms Hamilton’s body was found days later with a blanket over her head, and that the pathologist could not rule out suffocation as a cause of death, has certainly raised some eyebrows.

Ms Hamilton was completely unconscious in the days leading up to her death and would have been unable to put the blanket over her own head, she was however extremely vulnerable.

Ms Hamilton’s daughter, Caroline Britton, originally cared for Ms Hamilton at her own home, and she fought back tears as she gave evidence and recounted her mother’s deteriorating health.

She also remarked that she couldn’t recall the positioning of the blanket in her mother’s room on the last occasion that she saw her mother alive, and that she didn’t even know that her mother died until she was interviewed by police.

“I couldn’t understand how she was found with blankets over her head, and why.” she said.

“It’s obviously incredibly distressing if this is true, how could it have happened?”

Caroline Britton acknowledged that her family had discussed euthanasia in regards to her mother, pointing out that the family knew that Ms Hamilton would never have wanted to be in the state that she was in.

She then indicated that the police may have suspected foul play on the families behalf.

“The line of questioning with police was accusatory towards us,” she said.

Ms Hamilton’s family member denied making the possibly threatening comment, but pointed to the facilities lack of security and CCTV cameras as part of the problem.

The family member claims to have seen other residents “come and go” through the unit and actually had to physically restrain a person from entering the area.

The nurse who found Ms Hamilton’s body at the Malanda aged care facility described the blanket as being ‘tucked in’ over  Ms Hamilton’s head. And when asked if she could have been mistaken about the family members previous comments, the nurse replied: “It’s not something I’m going to forget.”

The mysterious circumstances surrounding Ms Hamilton’s death raise a number of questions, the issues surrounding her safety and her passing are industry hot topics on their own.

CCTV within aged care facilities is a topic that sparks debate and opinions ranging from necessity to unethical. But in circumstances like this there is no doubt they could potentially add clarity to the cloudy circumstances.

Senior Constable Kyle Milgate said that “It was possible that the family had put the sheet over her head, and it’s possible that another resident or anybody that can get access to that .. has come over and put a sheet over her head as well.”

Constable Milgate also noted that CCTV would have “definitely” helped this investigation. Which will continue to add fuel to the notion that security should trump privacy in the confines of an aged care facility.

Arguments pertaining to CCTV and privacy within an aged care facility must take into account many the rights of numerous parties, but the topic of euthanasia is a rather solitary and individual argument that brings questions of its own.

Whether or not a person of sound mind should be able to end their own life is one thing, but the process of having a family member make that decision for you, and the issues of legality or possible coercion, raise even more questions.

While questions like these do lead to uncomfortable conversations, clearly these are issues worth discussing. The elderly are society’s most vulnerable people and deserve both their safety, and their right to die, to be high on the nations agenda.

And in cases like this, a change to either of those laws may have made the difference between a mysterious death, and a dignified one.

Coroner Nerida Wilson closed the inquest on this afternoon.  Her findings will be handed down at a later date.

**HelloCare has deliberately not named the name of this facility. As we do not believe that it’s a necessary part of the article, or the purpose for us to report on it. Rather the deeper message is for people involved personally or professionally to learn from incidents like these so that we can minimise repeatable events. 

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