Blog | March 22, 2021

by Shona Hickmore, Social Work Student at the University of Calgary

The Government of Alberta has recently asked community stakeholders to provide feedback on which actions would improve the disgraceful state of continuing care in Alberta. Public Interest Alberta has responded to the Government’s request to help ensure that Albertans have a continuing care system that works!

The current continuing care system, already woefully inadequate after decades of underfunding and ever-increasing privatization and fragmentation, has utterly collapsed under the weight of the pandemic.  The evidence is clear – 64% of Alberta’s COVID-19 deaths occurred in congregate care facilities, reports of seniors suffering abuse and reported failures to follow health guidelines.  

Public Interest Alberta answered the Government and provided five recommendations which are urgently needed to improve this dire situation.

1. Get Profits Out of Seniors’ Care

Several researchers have studied the types of residential care provided to seniors: care in public facilities, care in non-profit facilities, and care in for-profit. Researchers agree care provided to seniors in their families is less in for-profit. During COVID, researchers in Ontario found that for-profit facilities had more outbreaks and deaths than other types of facilities. The refusal of for-profit facilities to make seniors' health and well-being a priority during this pandemic has caused unneeded deaths and proven that for-profit seniors care would rather make a profit than prioritize seniors’ lives.

The Alberta Government has chronically underfunded the continuing care system; it can’t meet the needs of Alberta seniors and their families. The Alberta government’s reliance on the market agenda -- where the government pays private companies to provide inferior services and says it’s providing Albertans with choice -- has increased the suffering of seniors and can’t be allowed to continue. This intentional shift to privatization has caused unnecessary deaths and been disastrous for Alberta seniors. Profits need to be taken out of seniors’ care. 

2. Create An-Easy-To-Navigate System

It should be easy for seniors and their families to find care that meets their needs, but it isn’t. Seniors are forced to make decisions without all the information they need or based just on how much they can afford to spend. This results in seniors getting inadequate care and suffering from a poor quality of life. Alberta seniors and their families deserve to know that their loved ones are getting the care they need from people who will treat them with respect. Right now, they have no such guarantees making an easy- to-navigate system of care critical.

Research from other countries like Norway, Sweden and Japan found seniors received better care in a comprehensive system instead of one made up of a patchwork of different options. In Alberta, this means there should be a clear and easily found location to get services. Ethically, forcing vulnerable seniors to fight through endless referrals and closed doors is wrong. Seniors’ care services should be a straight line and not an obstacle course! Alberta needs an easy to navigate system of seniors’ care.

3. Legislate Appropriate Staff-to-Patient Ratios and Staff Mixes

Currently the continuing care system isn’t just hard to understand, it’s also severely understaffed. There aren’t a lot of regulations about how much care a person in the continuing care system gets. The only regulations about care levels is for nursing homes which means there’s absolutely no standards for care in the majority of the continuing care system. Even in the areas where they are regulations, they are extremely inadequate. For example, in nursing homes the government says that each patient has to receive 1.9 hours of care a day. The United Nurses of Alberta recommend that each person receive 4.1 hours of care a day. The difference between these numbers is incredibly significant. It says that the Alberta Government has no interest in ensuring seniors and their families receive the level of care they require to have a good quality of life.

Alberta nurses have the experience and knowledge to understand that the minimum amount of care a person should receive is twice what the government has legislated at the minimum! Perhaps if the Alberta government was more interested in treating seniors like people instead of a burden or a source of revenue, they would increase the minimum number of hours of care required.

This huge gap in care is why there needs to be appropriate staff-to-patient ratios so seniors can receive quality care which meets their needs. It’s not okay to continue to treat seniors like they’re less than human. 

One researcher spoke to a care worker who said “I work a 4-hour bath shift to bathe, dress, trim nails, etc. for seven residents a day plus other duties. It is so fast that they are getting a ‘car wash’ to fit them all in.” The Alberta Government has allowed seniors to be the ones to bear the costs of a broken system. The Alberta Government has the resources to provide seniors and their families with care that does not humiliate, dehumanize, and degrade seniors. There is no reason for seniors to sacrifice their comfort and dignity. Alberta seniors and their families deserve better.

4. Provide Quality Care Based on Need, Not Ability to Pay

It is a point of pride for many Canadians that here in Alberta, everyone can receive needed medical care whether or not they can pay for it through our public medicare system. But that is only partly true because the current continuing care system means many seniors and their families need to pay to receive the care they need. The universal standard of care is too low and seniors’ medical and personal needs are becoming more complex as they age.  Everyone has the right to a safe place to live, even seniors in the continuing care system. The Alberta government needs to make sure seniors can get the care they need and not just the care they can afford!

5. Legislate a Seniors’ Advocate

Finally, Alberta seniors and their families deserve an independent Seniors’ Advocate Office empowered to help them understand the continuing care system and address questions and concerns. Alberta has advocate offices for other vulnerable groups like children, youth, and people with disabilities. BC has a Seniors’ Advocate and the Ontario Legislature is also considering creating an independent advocate for seniors. Alberta seniors need to have a voice; the creation of an independent seniors’ advocate is important for seniors and their families to be heard.

By implementing these changes as a start, the continuing care system in Alberta will better serve seniors and their families and provide them with better quality care focused on dignity and respect. Public Interest Alberta continues to press the Alberta government to improve the lives of seniors and their families, especially those in continuing care.  

It’s time for all Albertans to do the same and tell the Alberta government that seniors and their families are more important than large corporations by reaching out to their MLAs or the Ministry of Health. 

For more information visit the Seniors Deserve Better Campaign