Seniors deserve dignity and independence

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WHEN people think ahead to the years euphemistically described as golden, they tend to think nice thoughts: retirement will free up time and energy for worthwhile activities such as travelling, enjoying grandchildren and reading those neglected volumes gathering dust on the bookshelves.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/02/2021 (648 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WHEN people think ahead to the years euphemistically described as golden, they tend to think nice thoughts: retirement will free up time and energy for worthwhile activities such as travelling, enjoying grandchildren and reading those neglected volumes gathering dust on the bookshelves.

People don’t like to think they may end their lives in a long-term care home. It’s a prospect that has become even more unsettling in the past year, as publicity surrounding COVID-19 deaths made people aware some such institutions operate in conditions that are, quite frankly, deplorable.

Perhaps our aversion to long-term care homes stems from our reluctance to accept the likelihood that, if we live long enough, we will be frail and dependent on others. Most residents in long-term care homes need 24/7 care for activities such as eating, dressing, getting out of bed and using the toilet.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Health and Seniors Care Minister Heather Stefanson and external reviewer Dr. Lynn Stevenson address the results of the Maples Long Term Care Home review on Feb. 4, 2021

These vulnerable people rely on staff. When the pathogens invaded, some institutions failed in their responsibility.

The tragedy is not that these people died. Residents in long-term care homes know this will be their final address. Pre-pandemic, the average length of stay for such residents was 18 months.

The tragedy is that they died in panic and pain. When the virus attacked their respiratory systems, the physical afllictions were torturous. They died under an institutional edict that prohibited outside visitors, robbing them of loving farewells with family and friends.

While the memory of these cruel deaths is still fresh, it’s a ripe time to examine Manitoba’s 122 long-term care homes and ask the question: is there a better way?

Yes, according to Scandanavian countries. Places such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland are commonly referenced as the best places on the planet to grow old.

The current debate in Canada about eldercare seems to be narrowly limited to whether care homes should be publicly or private funded, with the federal NDP calling last week for the elimination of for-profit long-term care.

But the Scandanavian countries have successfully introduced a superior eldercare system that has the paramount aim of respecting the dignity and independence of older people. Instead of warehousing seniors, these countries try to keep their older citizens rooted in their communities and give them support to continue the activities they can still do.

For practical purposes, it means letting seniors stay in their homes as long as possible, with home-care services that are abundant by Manitoba standards, including regular home visits by medical staff. Yes, doctors and nurses make house calls.

Three decades ago, Denmark placed a moratorium on building long-term care homes. Instead, it built co-op housing where seniors can join a community of other seniors and help each other continue to enjoy life.

They still have a form of care homes for seniors who need extensive medical help, but these are small and cosy by Manitoba standards. They typically have wine with meals, flowers on the table and entertainment options.

Such quality care comes at a higher cost. In Manitoba, most care-home aides are women who are recent immigrants, are paid little more than minimum wage and carry such heavy worklaods that a recent study found 70 per cent of them say they risk emotional exhaustion.

In most Scandanavian countries, the aides who work with seniors are paid about double the salaries of Manitoba aides, and are given the training and time to connect with the residents and encourage fellowship.

According to 2017 figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Netherlands focused 3.7 per cent of its gross domestic product on long-term care, Sweden spent 3.2 per cent and Denmark spend 2.5 per cent. Canada spent 1.3 per cent.

The past year of high-profile tragedies in Manitoba care homes has prompted studies. The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority did a review. And the provincial government said earlier this month it will accept recommendations in an independent report done on the Maples Personal Care Home, where 56 residents died during the outbreak.

But neither the WRHA nor the provincial government is publicly considering models other than the institutionalization that failed Manitoba miserably when a crisis hit.

It’s possible to remake Manitoba’s care-home industry to better serve ouir oldest citizens. Yes, it would involve a larger allotment of tax dollars, but Manitobans who have supported this province throughout their lives deserve care that is dignified and respectful.

For people who think such changes are bothersome and too expensive, here’s a question: if your mother needs help in her final days, what type of care should she get?

carl.degurse@freepress.mb.ca

Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.

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