‘My elderly father found a new partner – then vanished from my life’

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Carolyn Stephens with her father Vincent in Ghana, 1994
By Sue Mitchell & Ben Milne
BBC News

When her elderly father found a new partner, Carolyn Stephens was stopped from seeing him, and then left helpless as he vanished from her life.

In 2012, Carolyn waved goodbye to her 78-year-old widowed father as he headed off to Cyprus on a package holiday for older people.

Vincent Stephens was comfortably retired after a successful career as an electrical engineer.

On his return, he introduced Carolyn to Iris, a 75-year-old woman with whom he had struck up a friendship on holiday.

Carolyn, his only child, quickly became worried by this new relationship.

Vincent sold his house in 2014, in the Suffolk village where he had lived since retirement, and bought a new home 30 miles away in Norfolk, to be close to Iris.

Carolyn suspected that Iris was trying to separate him from his family, as well as the friendship network he had built up over the years in Suffolk.

“It was actually really distressing for my dad,” she says. “I remember one conversation where she was shouting at him that he didn’t love me. And he was saying yeah, of course I do. She’s my daughter – of course I love her.”

Vincent told his daughter he could not work out why she and Iris did not get on.

His brother-in-law, Brian, says Vincent seemed happy with Iris when they were first together, but that he became more concerned as he saw how Carolyn was being pushed out of Vincent’s life: “He loved his daughter so much, so how he felt when they lost touch I don’t know, but I saw how concerned Carolyn was about it.”

Vincent’s sister-in-law, Sheila, also had misgivings about Iris: “She wasn’t over-friendly, and I don’t know whether she thought [Vincent’s family] were competition,” she says, “but she seemed very jealous of Carolyn’s relationship with her dad.”

Carolyn was also worried that her father’s mental state was deteriorating, and that he was showing early signs of dementia.

Brian (left) and Vincent, 2017

“Dad got more fragile. He was forgetting to get his car insured, he was missing appointments.”

In 2018, Carolyn accompanied Vincent to an appointment with his GP, who assessed him for possible cognitive decline. The test was inconclusive, but there were causes for concern, and the doctor recommended further investigation.

But Vincent did not turn up for a second appointment, and subsequent follow-ups were cancelled. Dr James Warner, a specialist in the field, says this is a common problem.

“Most people with dementia do not know that they’ve got dementia,” he says, “And so, they’re not going to… go to the GP and say, something’s wrong.”

Meanwhile, a quick succession of events was causing mounting alarm for Carolyn.

Within a day of his missed appointment, Vincent had moved in with Iris, and then, a few weeks later, she had taken him to a register office to be married.

However, the ceremony did not take place because the registrar was so worried about Vincent’s mental state.

“He couldn’t answer even basic questions about his own address, his bride’s date of birth, where or when he was supposed to be married,” says Carolyn.

Even so, that same week, Carolyn learned that Iris had won power of attorney over Vincent’s affairs. She now had the legal right to act on his behalf in both financial and property, and health and welfare affairs.

Anyone giving away power of attorney must have enough mental capacity to understand the consequences of what they’re doing, and must not be coerced into signing. But the system is open to abuse, says Dr Warner.

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“I’ve had a case where I’ve been asked to assess someone’s capacity to sign a lasting power of attorney for property and finance. My conclusion was that they did not have mental capacity. And the family said, ‘oh, don’t worry, we’ll get someone else to sign it’.”

Within days, Vincent’s house was put up for sale. But, worse was to come – something Carolyn had never anticipated.

Iris complained to the police that Carolyn was harassing Vincent, and that he wanted nothing further to do with his daughter.

“The police [told] me that I couldn’t contact my dad again, because I was abusing him,” says Carolyn. “I called back and said, could you tell me exactly what I’m supposed to have done? And they couldn’t.”

Carolyn was concerned for her father’s welfare, but the call from the police – and the threat of further action – made her very worried about calling him.

In early 2019, she had an email from her father, saying that he had been hospitalised following a fall. Neither Carolyn nor any of her family members had been told about the accident.

During a visit to Vincent in hospital, she witnessed Iris telling him that he had to choose between his family or her.

Vincent in Africa, 1994

Carolyn was told soon after that – despite being diagnosed with dementia while in hospital – her father had signed a GDPR form, preventing any information from being shared with his daughter. A few months later, she was told that his house had been sold, and emptied of his possessions.

Over the next few years, Carolyn’s family and friends tried calling Vincent at Iris’s house. They were told variously that he was out, asleep or did not want to talk – and then the phone was usually put down on them.

“We were sending birthday cards, Christmas cards, in the hope that they would reach him,” says Carolyn. “And we learned later that none of those cards had ever reached him. He had no idea that people were still trying to get hold of him.”

Carolyn did not see or hear from her father for almost four years. For some of that time, she did not know if he was even alive.

In May 2022, Carolyn discovered that Iris had died. Family members tried contacting Iris’s family to find out where Vincent was, but without success.

When the registrar confirmed Iris’s death to Carolyn, she saw that her father was no longer listed as living at her address. But where was he?

Sheila called Iris’s home again and was told by a man that “he could not help her” – before putting the phone down.

The family alerted the UK National Missing Persons Unit, and Carolyn started her own search for Vincent.

Every three months she would check the newly released national register of deaths, which is updated every three months, hoping against hope not to spot her father’s name there.

“It was harrowing,” she says, “but I had to keep looking. I needed to know whether Dad had died. I needed to know because at least that would have given me some closure.”

Carolyn also started looking through the electoral register. She could not find his details anywhere on the online version, so she turned to the more detailed full register, which is held on paper at the British Library in London.

Carolyn and her husband began combing through the names and addresses of everyone in Norfolk – the county where Vincent was last known to have been living. With a voting population of 700,000 in 2022, this was no easy task.

Carolyn Stephens at the British Library, where she searched the electoral register for her father’s details

For almost a week, they checked every single page of the records, and then Carolyn finally saw her father’s name, “in a tiny little care home in the middle of nowhere”.

Carolyn says it was one of the happiest moments of her life: “The librarians had to tell me to be quiet… because I was running around, going, ‘I found him, I found him!'”

She discovered that Vincent had been put in a care home just as the Covid lockdown began, in the spring of 2020, and had later been moved on to another. When Carolyn arrived, she saw hardly any personal effects in his room, and staff said he’d had few visitors.

“Only a single painting from his house remained, not a single picture of his family,” she says. “Staff at the care home did not know about his love of opera music, they had no idea that he had a daughter, and a huge network of people who loved him and were so worried about him.”

When her father saw her, he waved his arms in the air and shouted “surprised!” – it was all he could say. His dementia was so advanced that he couldn’t communicate in any other way. But it was enough for Carolyn, who rushed to his bed and hugged him.

“I will never forget it. I was really nervous because I thought he might not recognise me after all that time. But he couldn’t stop smiling, he had a huge grin, you know. It was just lovely. It was unbelievable really.”

Carolyn is still trying to piece together what happened in the years between.

In 2012, Vincent had £50,000 in savings and a house worth £250,000. By the time he was found in 2022, he had no home, few possessions and just £83,000 in the bank.

The experience of what happened to her father has led Carolyn to believe that better legal protections are needed for vulnerable older people.

Carolyn says that if her father had been able to cast forward and plan for what might happen to him, an early diagnosis of his dementia, and maybe an early power of attorney in her favour to protect him, it would have been more difficult to shut out her and her family.

She is also worried that the new Powers of Attorney Act, aimed at streamlining the process in England and Wales, may make older people more vulnerable: “It’s similar to changing a will or getting married… and actually, it’s even more powerful.”

Vincent died in June this year, six months after he was reunited with his daughter.

Vincent Stephens died in June 2023

“We were able to have a really simple memorial in the same place where Mum is buried,” says Carolyn. “And it almost seemed like nothing had happened – that these last five years were gone.”

She says that people ask her how she kept going through that time. She says it was because Vincent was her father. “I was not going to let him die thinking that I had stopped wanting to see him and care about him. He looked after me all my life, and I just never ever wanted him to think that I’d abandoned him.”

The BBC has approached Iris’s family for comment, but has received no reply.

Sue Mitchell is on X, formerly Twitter

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