Canada’s dirty little secret is now out in the open

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When we say we respect elders, the time has come to prove it. Giving the federal public health agency authority to nationally accredit nursing homes would be a good start.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 20, 2020.

OTTAWA—Canada’s dirty little secret is now out in the open.

While we all claim respect and reverence for seniors, when the time comes, they often find themselves in substandard conditions with little recourse or options.

The number of COVID-19 deaths in institutions is a clear signal that we need to revisit the deficiency of end-of-life and continuing care solutions.

It is also proof positive that running 13 independent nursing home systems makes absolutely no sense.

Because of the scarcity of COVID-fighting equipment, the federal and provincial governments have actually been coordinating international purchases and domestic distribution.

Incredibly, this is the first time in the history of our country that we have actually had agreement from all parties to cooperate on purchase requirements.

The federal government is also stepping in to offer updated guidelines for nursing home operations across the country.

But guess what. Their recommendations have zero legal authority. The federal government is responsible for guaranteeing the health of what we eat in Canada but has zero responsibility governing the health of our people.

The COVID death rate in institutional care is shining a light into an area that health advocates and the children of ailing parents have known for years.

The management and standards of public nursing facilities is a dog’s breakfast.

Several years ago, my own mother had to be institutionalized because of her increasing dementia.

Luckily, she was in a position to secure a place in a private facility that specialized in memory wards, a euphemism for people who no longer retain their memories.

She was thriving for almost two years but in the last four months of her life, she went rapidly downhill.

The community care experts who track placement for vulnerable seniors suggested it was time to move her into a public facility where there would be more focus on heavy care. We were given a list to visit, and quickly discovered the differences in facilities even in a single city.

There were at least three outstanding facilities, that would pass muster on any nursing inspection. The waiting list to get into these places was up to three years.

We were given another list that had immediate openings, and my husband and I scheduled tours with several of them.

The first one we visited was a retrofitted warehouse conveniently located beside what appeared to be a brothel motel.

The stench of urine was so pungent when we opened the front door that we recoiled. Patients were in the sunroom, some of whom were literally naked as their hospital gowns had come undone, and nobody seemed to think that their dignity was worth preserving.

I left the facility in tears, and vowed that I would never, never, never put a loved one into a place that was not even suitable for a dog.

I expressed my concern to community care and the workers agreed that there were some nursing homes in the nation’s capital that were absolutely substandard.

Luckily, my mother was able to stay in the private facility until she passed away, but to this day, images of the poor quality of some nursing homes in Ottawa still stings.

The other thing that stood out during my mother’s time in institutional care was the untiring devotion of staff, many of whom are surviving on minimum wage.

Dealing with demented patients is not an easy task, as they can suffer from inexplicable mood swings and sometimes, uncharacteristic violent behaviour. It is not uncommon for nurses and personal service workers to be slapped, cursed or spit on by people who have literally lost control of their minds.

I called the workers my mother’s saints, because they cared for her with dignity and gentleness, and never lost sight of the fact that she was a person, not just a patient.

Last year, the Ontario government rolled back a planned minimum wage increase. Many of these saints saw their wage hikes go up in smoke, while the workload did not get any easier.

Many nursing homes are owned by holding companies, that are focussed on one thing, the bottom line. And cutting food and care budgets help get to that bottom line.

If we learn one thing from this COVID nightmare, it is that the time has actually come to put our money where our mouth is.

When we say we respect elders, the time has come to prove it. Giving the federal public health agency authority to nationally accredit nursing homes would be a good start.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.