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Geriatric Culling

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An upcoming inquest into the last year's death of Heather Brenan is welcome news to other families who've seen elderly loved ones die in Winnipeg hospitals.

The intent of the inquest is to examine the pressure on hospitals, and the health-care system, by the ever-increasing number of older patients needing care, the so-called Silver Tsunami.

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Much focus has been put on Seven Oaks General Hospital, its limited number of acute-care beds and its discharge policy for elderly patients.

But that's unfair. Judging by the phone calls and email I've received, the issue of the treatment of older people in hospitals extends across the province.

And by the limited amount of reading I've done, it also extends around the globe.

Take this recent story from Great Britain: Hospitals are very bad places for the elderly.

Or this: Hospitals sending elderly patients home too soon.

And this recent report in Canada: Baby boomers should pay more for health care, study says.

Simply, it is not just a Seven Oaks issue.

It is not just a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority issue.

It is not just an NDP issue.

The Brenan inquest is months if not longer away from starting.

It will be headed by a single provincial court judge more familiar with the nuances of the Criminal Code of Canada and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms than someone who knows intimately about the care of older people in the later stages of life.

It's fair to ask at this early stage what it will accomplish given the scope of the issue. 

Families of other patients who say their own loved ones experienced similar treatment as Brenan say they want the inquest to also include their cases.

"Older people have no value," says Rozalynde McKibbin, who alleges her mother, Anne Rostecki, was starved to death after she was admitted to Seven Oaks on July 18, 2009, following a stroke. "It's like rolling logs, get rid of them to free up a bed for the next person.

"They should not be treated like something in an assembly line. They should not be treated like a burden. They should be treated with respect."

Leslie Worthington, whose father John Klassen died in January 2004, says her experience and the experiences of Brenan's family, McKibbin and others should serve as a warning that Canada's public health-care system will not be able to cope with the coming crush of aging and ailing baby boomers.

She says that means opening the door to more private diagnostics and care--those who can afford it should pay for it to get more rapid treatment outside of the public system.

"As it is right now, we're living in a disposable health-care system," Worthington says.

Mark Popovich, whose mother Elizabeth Popovich also died at Seven Oaks, says this: "What I would hope the inquest would determime is just a better procedure that actually has to happen before elderly people are released.

"It would take away that non-chalant attidue towards the elderly."

Besides these valid and pressing concerns, the treatment of the elderly also opens up this discussion, one we've had in our house already and included in our wills.

Euphemistically, it's called dying with dignity.

Here's author Martin Amis on "The Silver Tsunami." 


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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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