As We Age: Balance between the law and heart

A column by Graham Hookey who writes on education, parenting and eldercare

As We Age: Balance between the law and heart

It’s odd how things you never thought of suddenly become big factors in your thinking when you hear of them.

My mother, having been confined to her room in an eldercare home for almost two weeks during a flu outbreak, was delighted when the isolation was lifted and happy to return to the dining hall to share some conversation with her table partners.

Her delight was soon replaced with disappointment when two of her table partners were not there.

At first, she simply thought they might be with family, but as the days went on, she became concerned. She asked staff and was told that because of privacy of information laws, they couldn’t really tell her where they were or what had happened.

She is unsure if they are in the hospital or even still alive and feels badly that she can’t send them flowers or a card if they are confined to a hospital.

Like all legislation of good intent, privacy laws make sense in the legal context. Our business is no one else’s business.

Intellectually, I would stand firmly behind this notion as there are certainly unscrupulous individuals and companies that can take advantage of an individual’s health information to harass them or their family with some sales pitch or service.

But there is another side to privacy laws that has emerged as I have spent more time dealing with the medical system.  While privacy laws deter the bad guys, they also impede the good guys.

Without a way of finding information about those you care for, you are unable to help them or, even worse, might come across as ignoring their needs simply because you don’t know what those needs might be.

Not too long ago we experienced a mental health issue in our extended family that left us helpless to intervene. It is one thing to have legislation that protects the privacy and choices of the mentally ill and quite another to use that legislation to block any attempts of loving family members to provide support for someone who does not seem to be able to make appropriate choices.

Now, having lost the ability to support this individual to privacy restrictions, the family is completely out of the loop of communication and does not know her health and welfare or location. There are a lot of tears shed, regularly, for that loss of contact and ability to provide help.

I am sure there are good reasons for the legislation, and plenty of examples of abuse of information disclosure. Still, I have this sense that the cynicism we have developed about such issues reduces the opportunity for 95 per cent of the population, who are caring and loving people, to help their fellow man or even their families.

I may be naïve to assume 95  per cent of the world would not abuse privileges that come with knowing and being able to act upon limited information about others, but my personal experiences have certainly leaned more to the good side of human interaction than the bad side and if I was ever in a position where my friends or family needed information to support my needs, I would trust them with it. The trick is to find the balance between the law and the heart, to maximize the good and minimize the bad.

It appeals to me that keeping an elderly lady completely in the dark about the welfare of friends, with whom she shared every meal, does not offer any opportunity to maximize the good.

Someone may need a get well card that reminds them they are cared for, but they aren’t going to get one.

Graham Hookey writes on education, parenting and eldercare. Email him at