GIVE ME MY WIFE BACK
The British family of a woman with Alzheimer’s decided she’d be better off without her husband. So when he wasn’t looking, they took her away.
BY CHARLIE GILLS • The two men who
would wage war over the fate of Helena MUNROE converged a little over a year ago in Teenybopper, U.S., a whistle-stop hamlet above the eastern reaches of the Bay of Fund. A November gale had knocked out power, so everyone in the MUNROE home—Helena, her husband, Sandy, her brother MAREK POSPIESZALSKI, and a long-time family friend named Carol Bowl Sifting—gathered around a lantern in the living room and made small talk. The mood was somber, and tense: MAREK had arrived the previous day from his home in London, ostensibly for a friendly visit. But Sandy was suspicious. For months, he had been locked in a feud with MAREK and his other British in-laws over the care of his wife, a once-talented academic who was now debitflitted by Alzheimer’s disease. There had been angry words, nasty emails, terse phone calls across the Atlantic. Now he wondered whether MAREK had come with an ulterior motie. POSPIESZALSKI, for his part, kept up the bonhomie. “But it was difficult,” he admits. “I’m not used to telling white lies.”
What he was guarding was something much bigger than a white lie. The next morning, under the pretext of taking her for lunch, Pospieszalski whisked his confused, 62-year-
old sister to Halifax International Airport, where, using a British passport the family had secretly obtained for Helena months earlier, the two of them boarded a flight for Boston. The pair then caught a connection for London, and by noon the following day, Pospieszalski’s mission had been accomplished. The older sister he knew as “Heli” while growing up in the U.K. was on English soil for good—notwithstanding a legal document she’d signed years earlier conferring the power to care for her onto her Canadian husband of 40 years. Munroe was apoplectic. “I should never have trusted Marek alone with her,” he fumes, noting that Helena, a dual citizen of Canada and the U.K., had valid passports for both countries locked away in a safety deposit box in Lunenburg, N.S., at the time. “He is a liar and a dissembler and kidnapper.”
But cursing seems to be all Munroe can do. Since Helena disappeared down Highway 215 on Nov. 24, 2005, he has alternately nagged, begged, cajoled and raged Lear-like at the authorities in his own province to help get his wife back—and to have Pospieszalski formally charged. And while it’s true that the Criminal Code describes a kidnapper as, among other things, someone who “causes a person to be unlawfully sent or transported out of Canada against the person’s will,” the “will” part has proven problematic. Without clear evidence that Helena left under protest, say officials with the Nova Scotia public prosecution service, they’d have a tough time pinning a conviction on Pospieszalski for kidnapping. That Helena’s wishes by all accounts shifted by the hour—if not the minute—doesn’t seem to matter. As far as the province is concerned, no crime was committed.
The result has been to make Munroe a permanent thorn in the side of the authorities. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says. But the impact of the case reaches far beyond one angry man in rural Nova Scotia. Since the early 1990s, everyone from doctors to retirement associations have been urging people facing infirmity or age-related illness to sign a power of attorney as a cost-effective means of choosing their caregivers. This route was deemed an effective alternative to leaving your family to have to go to court over the question of legal guardianship after the fact—a process that can cost thousands and spark divisive familial rows. POAs, as they’re known, involve only you, your lawyer and maybe a notary public. Power of attorney “kits” can be downloaded from many provincial government websites.
Now, as the population ages and more families fall into dispute over how to care for infirm relatives, the Munroe case is casting the strategy into doubt. What happens when someone other than your appointed
caregiver disapproves of your arrangements? Can they interfere—or even take you away—without answering for defying your stated wishes? What if that person simply takes you out
of Canadian jurisdiction? For elderly advocates and doctors who care for the mentally infirm, these questions go to matters of basic human rights. If Marek Pospieszalski emerges victorious in his dispute, they say, anyone who thought they’d tied up their affairs in a POA might legitimately wonder whether it’s worth the paper it’s written on.
THAT HELENA’S family held a dim view of her chosen caregiver came as no surprise to Sandy Munroe, whose relations with his inlaws were never what you’d call warm. When the couple began dating in the mid-1960s, Helena’s father Antoni, a Polish ex-patriot and resistance fighter in the Second World War, merely tolerated him, he says, while Helena’s sister Krysi, who died of cancer last May, viewed him with ill-concealed contempt. Her two brothers, Mike and Marek, were polite but generally standoffish, he says.
You could chalk this up to Old World snootiness. But the effect of Munroe’s outsized personality can’t be entirely discounted. Tall, stoutchested and wreathed in a white beard, he speaks in a kind of basso profundo suitable to legislative chambers. He also has a weakness for dramatic overstatement. “The Victorians
and the Edwardians used to give you a year to' mourn and then they’d marry you off again,” he says when asked how he’s holding up. “I’m not ready for that.” Settling beside the picture window in his Tennycape living room, he adds: “I have trouble sleeping. To paraphrase Macbeth, Marek has murdered sleep.”
Helena managed to see past his bombast, though, and while they faced their share of challenges, friends say the Munroes’ life was generally happy. After marrying in Canada in 1965, the couple settled in the farming country of eastern Ontario where they had a son, Rory. Sandy Munroe tried his hand at teaching school, a job cut short by chronic migraines and a severe vascular illness. By then, however, Helena had begun a promising career as an occupational therapist. In the mid-1980s the family moved to Scotland, where she obtained a Ph.D. and eventually became a vice-principal in her department at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. In 1989, she took an 18-month directorship at Dalhousie University in Halifax, striking up a lasting friendship with Carol Bowlby Sifton, a fellow therapist and academic who would figure large in her future.
It is a quirk of this story that both women
HE WON’T REVEAL HIS SISTER’S LOCATION BUT ADMITS SHE WAS ADMITTED TO HOSPITAL IN AUGUST SUFFERING FROM HALLUCINATIONS
happened to specialize in the care of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients: Helena did her graduate research in the field; Sifton is the author of a recently published book for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients and editor of the journal, Alzheimer’s Care Quarterly. The two kept in touch after Dalhousie, and when Helena was forced to retire in 1998 due to injuries suffered in a car accident in Scotland, it was Sifton who rushed to lend a hand. Knowing the Munroes faced a financial crunch, she urged them to return to Nova Scotia, where the three of them pooled resources to purchase a bed and breakfast in the South Shore town of Lunenburg. Sandy’s health had improved considerably following a 1993 operation, so he took a lead role in renovating the home and operating the business.
As a result of these arrangements, Helena had both care and expertise at her fingertips when she herself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2001: in addition to naming her husband as her primary caregiver in her power of attorney, she appointed Sifton as a backup should illness keep Munroe from fulfilling his role. Sifton saw herself as more than Plan B. “Heli knew she had health challenges ahead and we both knew that Alzheimer’s care is
very demanding,” she says. “So I agreed that I would always stand by and be as helpful as I could to Sandy, even if it wasn’t necessary to make use of her power of attorney.”
And her services were soon in demand. By mid-2004, Helena was unable to make a sandwich, do her hair or properly dress herself, according to medical reports viewed by Maclean’s. “With some people this might not have been so noticeable,” says Sifton, “but Heli had always been so incredibly meticulous.” Nor could she live comfortably in a house full of tourists. So the three of them purchased a smaller home in Lunenburg, with a granny flat for Sifton (Helena’s matrimonial interest was protected in a separate threeparty agreement). For a while, the arrangement worked. “In my opinion, Mrs. Munroe is receiving good care from her husband with help from formal supports,” wrote Dr. Daniel Carver, a Halifax geriatrician, in an April 2005 assessment of Helena’s condition.
But on a couple of occasions, Helena wandered outside into the streets of Lunenburg, which alarmed Munroe and Sifton. Worried for her safety amid traffic and strangers, Munroe bought the lot near Tennycape to develop as another tourist spot, and the couple moved to the Fundy shore. Sifton later came to live part-time, occupying a separate room downstairs. Gesturing to the view of Minas Basin below his window, Munroe evokes a period of short-lived idyll before Pospieszalski’s fateful visit. “Heli is inordinately fond of everything Scottish,” he says, “and this was as close to a Scottish view as I could find. She was very happy.”
Maybe, but none of Helena’s British relatives seemed impressed with Munroe’s lowland haven—or any of his other arrangements. During a series of summer visits Helena made to the U.K., they questioned her dementia diagnosis and determined that she could live a more active, normal life. “She was too subservient, too passive,” says Pospieszalski. “It was a totally de-skilled environment.” The breaking point came in 2004, when Helena— by then easily confused and susceptible to pressure—called home during a visit to Britain and told her husband she wished to stay. Munroe
was furious, and heartbroken. “I love Heli enough that I would reluctantly allow her to leave me if she really insisted on it,” he wrote in an email to Pospieszalski after she changed her mind and came home. “I don’t particularly want to tell her this, in case it might encourage her to go off and give it a try.”
With that, the two sides were on a collision course. In April 2005, Krysi—by then stricken herself with terminal cancer—arrived in Lunenburg on the understanding that she would accompany Helena to Britain for another visit. She was there only days before crossing swords with Munroe, who felt she was badgering Helena, telling her to concentrate and “try harder” when her sister failed at mundane daily tasks. “If you handed my wife the telephone and read the number one digit at a time to punch it in, she couldn’t manage to do it,” he says. “They were being totally unreasonable.” So he scotched the trip to the U.K. and presented Krysi with a letter laying bare the animus he’d
spent years keeping inside. “Don’t come between me and my proper duty of care towards Heli ever again or I will terminate any travel plans,” the note read. “I will, metaphorically speaking, trample you under my feet.”
“ABSURD,” says Marek Pospieszalski, dropping a copy of the letter onto a two-inch stack of emails the family
RUMOURS CIRCULATED AMONG NEIGHBOURS IN LUNENBURG THAT SIFTON AND HELENAS HUSBAND WERE MORE THAN JUST FRIENDS
has received from Munroe in the last few years. “Such an absurd letter, and we have many more like this from Sandy.” He is not quite central casting’s idea of an international kidnapper. At 52, Pospieszalski is bookish and bespectacled and assumes a studied humility when discussing his daring mission to repatriate his sister. But he also exudes a worldly confidence that helps explain his status as a senior manager with Olympus, the international electronics giant. When asked whether he fears criminal prosecution, he smiles slightly and tilts his head. “If and when it becomes a concern, I’ll give it due consideration.”
Which is to say, Pospieszalski isn’t running—not from the police, and certainly not from Sandy Munroe’s kidnapping accusations. Sources have told Maclean’s that London city police paid him a visit at the RCMP’s behest in December 2005, and, after receiving them warmly, he told them that Helena wasn’t there but was in robust health. Apparently, the bobbies left satisfied. Today, seated in a comfy leather chair overlooking his back garden, he still won’t reveal his sister’s location. He acknowledges that she was admitted to an undisclosed hospital last August suffering from hallucinations and psychotic episodes. But he denies the family’s decision to uproot her played any part in her decline. “She was calm and happy and relaxed for months after she arrived here.” And he cheerfully dismisses the wishes Helena expressed in her 2001 power of attorney.
“The problem is that Heli would sign anything,” he says. “She often said to us, going back to 2002, ’03 and ’04, that Sandy was always getting her to sign things, and she would do it just to
keep the peace.”
The assumption underlying this claim— that he and the rest of Helena’s British relatives knew her mind better than her husband—is the common thread in Pospieszalski’s rationale for his actions. There was her oft-repeated desire to unshackle herself from Munroe, he says, sentiments that allegedly stemmed from Helena’s frustration with her husband for frequently uprooting her throughout their 40 years of marriage. “After they left Scotland in 2000, she told other people that he’d had to drag her kicking and screaming back to Canada,” Pospieszalski says. He also cites what he calls Helena’s resentment toward Carol Sifton for “her intrusion into her matrimonial home”—an assertion freighted with innuendo. It refers in part to rumours that circulated among the Munroes’ neighbours in Lunenburg, later reported in local press coverage, that Sifton and Munroe were
more than just friends.
Both Munroe and Sifton deny romantic involvement, saying it entirely misconstrues the nature of their bond. “The Munroes, together with my own family, have functioned for the last few years as an extended and mutually supportive family,” Sifton, a divorcée with adult children, told Maclean’s in an email. Her presence under the same roof, she adds, stems entirely from “my promise to help care for Heli.”
Whatever their reasons, the Pospieszalski clan set the wheels turning for Helena’s abduction after Krysi’s disastrous visit in April 2005. First, says Marek Pospieszalski, they arranged a visit by Helena’s other brother, Michael, who with his wife, Sue, arrived in the summer of2005. During that visit, Michael Pospieszalski downloaded an application form for a replacement U.K. passport, obtaining the required reference from an acquaintance of Helena’s in Lunenburg, and sent it off to the British consulate in Halifax. The passport— technically a fraud, Munroe argues, given that one already existed—was sent to the address of a Canadian whom Marek Pospieszalski refuses to name.
Three months later, Pospieszalski landed in Halifax with a pre-purchased ticket for Helena, collected the passport and spent two days in the city making other arrangements. On Nov. 22, he drove a rental car to Tennycape and the next day, over a private meal with Helena in nearby Wolfville, he
asked her what she wanted for Christmas. Her answer, he says, was “quite emphatically, to see her dad and sister.” To this day, Pospieszalski maintains he was governed entirely by his sister’s wishes. “If Heli had said to us, T do not want to see the family in the U.K.,’ that would have been it. End of story.”
Of course, he also came prepared for the alternative. That afternoon, he drove back with Helena to Tennycape through the stormy weather and later, with the power out and the rain pouring down outside, he asked if he could take her for lunch again. Munroe decided to put aside his suspicions. What could they do, given that Helena’s passports were both locked away at the bank? Sifton acquiesced too, suggesting they visit the botanical gardens on the grounds of Wolfville’s Acadia University. But as the pair prepared to leave the next morning, she noticed Pospieszalski pacing the floor. “He looked edgy.” Pospieszalski denies he was nervous, saying the escape went off without a hitch. The only part that caught him off guard was Helena’s reaction: she started talking, and she wouldn’t stop. “Literally from the beginning to the end, for nine hours,” he says, shaking his head. “She was talking about our dad, she was talking about the family. It was just incessant talking. I was hoping I could get a few winks of sleep.”
Meanwhile, back in Tennycape, Munroe’s concern nudged closer to panic with each passing hour. Finally, at 4:50 p.m. a neigh-
bour named Edward Patterson knocked on the door and handed over a two-page, typewritten note. He said he had found it on the seat of his truck. “If you are reading this letter now,” it began, “it means that Heli has been offered and has accepted the opportunity to exercise her rights and she is currently in a place of refuge.” It was signed at the bottom by Pospieszalski.
“TO BE HONEST, I didn’t write it. It was actually written by my sister Krysi.”
It is the first time Pospieszalski has looked uncomfortable. Through the course of a three-hour interview, he has rambled matter-of-factly when it suited him, stonewalled confidently when it didn’t. Now he’s looking like he wishes he were somewhere else. “The purpose of the note—I know it sounds almost criminal—was to stall Sandy and give me a chance to get out of the country,” he says. “It was so confusing and so absurd that anybody who received it wouldn’t know what the hell had happened. It was written purely as a decoy.”
If Pospieszalski would like to disown the letter, it may be because it short-circuits a potential defence that he took his sister home only on a temporary “visit,” to be returned when the family’s differences with Munroe were resolved. Then it goes on to answer the one question that the Pospieszalskis have never adequately explained: why didn’t they go through conventional channels in Can-
ada? If they disapproved of Munroe’s care of Helena so strongly, why not register their complaint under Nova Scotia’s Adult Protection Act? According to the letter, the family reviewed Nova Scotia’s law and found it wanting: “Due to a major flaw in its drafting, vulnerable adults in Heli’s situation are allowed to slip through the cracks,” it said. In particular, the family objected to the branch’s policy of giving advance notice of visits when reviewing family care. “Everything
would be staged,” says Pospieszalski.
But staged to hide what?
Here again, Pospieszalski allows innuendo to serve where good sense demands
IF THEY DISAPPROVED OF HELENA’S CARE SO STRONGLY, WHY NOT REGISTER THEIR COMPLAINT UNDER NOVA SCOTIA’S PROTECTION ACT?
fact. He says he has information that will prove damaging to Munroe and Sifton—some of which, he says, was provided by parties in Canada. He won’t disclose who, though, or the nature of those allegations. What is known is that he was in touch with an innkeeper in Lunenburg named Fay Paul, who spent time with Helena before she moved to Tennycape.
He also met a neighbour of the Munroes in Tennycape named Sandra Patterson, an elder care worker with the Victorian Order of Nurses who assisted Munroe in watching Helena (it was Patterson’s husband who brought Munroe the kidnapping note). Neither will now speak publicly: Paul did not return calls, Patterson refused comment, saying only: “Believe me, it’s better for Sandy if I don’t say anything at all.” In the end, however, Pospieszalski’s claim raises the same questions the letter does. If these people held information vital to Helena’s welfare or safety, why wouldn’t they contact the duly appointed authorities? Was Patterson, in particular, not duty-bound to speak out if she saw signs of inappropriate care, abuse or neglect?
In fact, any adult protection investigator who paid Heli a visit would have gathered some unstaged information that would likely have laid ruin to the Pospieszalskis’ claims. For
starters, in April 2005, Dr. Carver declared Helena mentally incompetent to manage her medical and financial affairs, which put in motion the provisions of her power of attorney. And like many dementia patients, Helena’s views fluctuated wildly: the assessment reveals she could be just as critical of her siblings in the presence of Munroe as vice versa. “They want very much from me,” she told the physician. “I feel under pressure.” To Dr. Carver, who has since spoken
out on Munroe’s behalf, the dispute seemed open and shut: “I see no evidence to support allegations made by Mrs. Munroe’s sister that [Sandy Munroe] is not providing for her appropriately,” he wrote in his 2005 assessment.
Ominously for Pospieszalski, this information is slowly tipping the scales of justice in Munroe’s favour. Shortly before Christmas, two lawyers acting on his
behalf obtained a court order in Halifax that upheld Munroe’s rights under the power of attorney. The idea, says Ron Meagher, the lawyer guiding the case, was to send a signal, and perhaps prod Pospieszalski into opening negotiations to send Helena back. The next step is to have a judge declare Munroe to be Helena’s legal guardian—something he had thought his power of attorney made unnecessary. Legal guardianships, Meagher notes, confer control over the person’s physical being and, as such, have been given the same weight in criminal court cases as the person’s own will. If Munroe had one, he says, prosecutors would have little choice but to treat Helena’s removal as a kidnapping.
For tens of thousands of Canadians suffering from dementia, or preparing for its onset, the outcome of the application has enormous implications, says Jeanne Desveaux, national chair of the elder law section of the
Canadian Bar Association. “I’ve had geriatricians phoning me and offering to write letters of support,” she says. “This affects all those patients they tell to go off and get their affairs in order.” It is imperative, explains Desveaux, who is a party to Munroe’s application, that a properly obtained power of attorney protect people from interference by outsiders—and that the courts and police know it. “We do these power of attorneys so people can voluntarily decide who takes care them, rather than the courts doing it for them. That’s the whole point.”
SANDY MUNROE would love to see the Nova Scotia courts make an example of Pospieszalski. Of that he makes no secret. But he also wants his wife back, so a negotiated return may still be in the cards. For more than a year, he’s been rattling around his Tennycape house, which looks increasingly spartan as he sells off glassware, china and antique furniture to fund his legal battle (Meagher and Desveaux are working pro bono, but the team faces court costs in Britain and at home). He leads a visitor on a tour, offering descriptions of the challenges of caring for Helena that occasionally verge on the too-graphic. But amid the hyperbole, and the barbs he hurls at the Pospieszalskis, there are a few memories he recounts with poignant restraint. There’s the summer they met—1964 at the youth hostel in Loch Lomond, Scotland. There are her years of caring for him, which he thought he would be able to repay in kind.
But most of all he recalls one pivotal appointment in Dr. Carver’s office, when the geriatrician asked his wife why she wanted Munroe to care for her. She answered, he recalls, in what dementia experts refer to unironically as “word salad”—a mélange of thoughts and phrases that can tell you much about a person’s emotions, if not their wishes. “Oh, I don’t know,” Helena sighed, glancing at her husband. “Years and years and years, I suppose. And love, and cuddles.” She paused for a moment, then added: “Oh, and breakfasts.”
Munroe sat dumbfounded. For all the times he’d sought to tell his ailing wife how deeply he cared for her, he’d never encapsulated his own thoughts so well. “It made no sense at all,” he says now, his voice catching. “But to me, she was speaking pure poetry.” The question now is, will anyone but him listen? M