by Sandra Azocar, Executive Director of Friends of Medicare and Joel French, Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta
The continuing care system in Alberta and across the country is in crisis and seniors are suffering physically, mentally, and emotionally. After decades of increasing privatization, declining staff-to-patient ratios, and a chronically underpaid and stretched-thin workforce, the COVID-19 pandemic swept away any pretense of a functional care system and has thrown the myriad issues and dangers facing seniors into sharp relief.
A staggering 81% of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths have come in long-term care homes, according to a report released by the Royal Society of Canada (RSC). To date in Alberta, 97% of COVID-related deaths have been Albertans aged 60 or older, and 70% were residents in continuing care. Even more egregious is that the number of deaths in for-profit seniors’ care is up to four times higher than other forms of care. Clearly, something is very wrong when comparable countries are seeing nowhere near this rate of deaths in their seniors’ care facilities.
The RSC report points out that “systemic and deeply institutionalized implicit attitudes about age and gender” have led to this total failure to provide adequate care. This appalling ageism and disregard for the life and dignity of seniors is encapsulated in a statement made by Premier Kenney when he said, “The average age of death from COVID in Alberta is 83, and I’ll remind the house that the average life expectancy in the province is 82.”
The message here is clear and re-articulated in every decision the United Conservative Party (UCP) government makes–they adhere to a market fundamentalist ideology of maximized profit for already-wealthy CEOs, shareholders, and multinational corporations, no matter the cost to human lives.
For example, the provincial government has passed Bill 30: Health Statutes Amendment Act. This legislation creates pathways for further privatization of our health care system by enacting the recommendations from a review tasked with cutting health care spending with little consideration to best health outcomes or impacts to patient care. This is the epitome of the regressive market agenda’s core tenets, as they seek to offload critical health care services and infrastructure to the private sector, at grave risk to patient outcomes.
Furthermore, the UCP government unveiled Bill 32, which disingenuously promises to “restore balance” to employer-union relations. These unions–among them many of the nurses and care workers in seniors’ care facilities–coalesce the power of the individual workers to protect and improve their working conditions, which ultimately become the care conditions for Alberta’s seniors.
The issue of market fundamentalism extends far beyond the scope of the privatizing, anti-worker agenda of the UCP in Alberta (though they do serve as the arguable worst-case template in Canada). In the for-profit seniors’ care sector, the four largest chains across the country are dominated by corporate directors with no real medical expertise. A full 90% are from sectors such as real estate, finance, and hospitality, while only three directors out of the 35 on the boards of those large chains are certified health care professionals. It is completely out in the open that these companies exist for a sole reason: profit. And when your sole motivation is profit, every decision is made to ensure the cheapest possible delivery of care to seniors, who–in their view–are not human beings deserving of a comfortable, safe, and dignified final chapter of their lives, but rather are commodities to extract value from.
There is no shortage of heart-breaking and stomach-turning stories which illustrate the abuses inflicted on seniors in some of these facilities, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: From the woman who died from dehydration and a urinary tract infection after being forced to sit in wet diapers in Viking, Alberta, to the brutal conditions in a Slave Lake which rehashed the trauma of residential schools for Indigenous seniors, to the damning report issued by the military called in to respond to the pandemic about the state of bug-infested nursing homes in Ontario where residents were crying out for help for hours. The graphic and visceral horror for the way these seniors have been treated makes most of us want to turn away in shame at how deteriorated and utterly inadequate at best, and abusive and nightmarish at worst, the state of seniors’ care is at this time.
Seniors are not commodities to be profited from. When seniors’ needs become too high, they are no longer profitable, and corporations then find ways to dispose of them, such as “eviction by ambulance,” where they are shipped to hospitals and told they can never return. High-needs seniors who require extra care and attention are not people who have outlived their usefulness. They are vital and integral parts of our communities and families and deserve so much more than this abuse and mistreatment at the hands of care providers hell-bent on squeezing every last penny in profits from them.
We need action and we need it now. We know what the problems are and we know how to fix them. We need to launch a people’s inquiry into the broken state of continuing care in our province–an inquiry headed by experts in public health and seniors’ care, not a government-appointed panel that will deliver a predetermined report which aligns with the UCP’s agenda of privatization. We need national standards which enshrine the rights of seniors to receive the care they need and deserve, and oversight to ensure these standards are met. Finally, we need to phase out for-profit care entirely, and work towards a universal, public system.
We need to build a seniors’ care system that provides high quality care to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. That requires our governments to make significant changes and investments, and those need to happen now. Seniors all over Canada cannot wait.