Blog | September 15, 2011

Op-Ed printed in Edmonton Journal, September 15, 2011

It's time for Alberta to have dialogue on key issues such as our aging population

By Noel Somerville and Bill Moore-KilgannonWhen former prime minister Kim Campbell made her unfortunate comment about election campaigns not being the time to debate issues, reaction was swift. People realized that without debate on issues, elections are nothing more than fundraising, glad-handing and platitudinous monologues.Meaningful democracy cannot be based on monologues. It has to involve dialogue not just between candidates but, most importantly, between candidates and the electorate. It has to be an exchange involving listening as well as speaking, and it has to be centred on the crucial issues of the time.For many years, the Alberta government has had a chronic problem with listening, and unfortunately the current PC leadership race has not improved their willingness to listen, let alone engage in a dialogue on key issues.This failure is particularly important when it comes to dealing with the fact that the percentage of seniors in Alberta's population is expected to grow by 40 per cent over the next 10 years and double over the next 20 years, with enormous consequences for Alberta society. Government leaders frequently use the "tsunami" analogy to explain their unpreparedness, but this is very misleading. This is not a sudden, unpredictable event. We have known about this demographic bulge for the past 60 years.Currently, there is a severe lack of quality home care. There are long waiting lists to get into long-term care with those awaiting placement blocking acute-care hospital beds.Additionally, many seniors are unable to afford the privately owned assisted-living facilities where care is often so inadequate that seniors are shipped off to the emergency room when health problems develop. The problems are getting worse, not better, and the worst is yet to come. So while we see this tidal demographic shift coming at us, what we need is real leadership to take action now to resolve this deepening crisis before seniors end up in a care system that is totally swamped.Consequently, our group, representing 10 seniors organizations in Alberta, decided in July to invite all candidates for party leadership to complete a survey on issues that are critically important for Alberta seniors. What did we hear? Sadly, we heard very little.While we received responses from Liberal leadership candidates and some other opposition parties, only one of the six PC leadership candidates, Alison Redford, took the time to address these important seniors issues.Doug Horner's team asked us to pose our questions on his website, which we did, but no response appeared. Several others simply referred us to the policy statements on their website, so that is what we were forced to do. Except for Doug Griffiths, the PC candidates did release their positions on seniors issues on their sites, but most were so vague and full of platitudes they seem not to understand the crisis in seniors' care. Redford and Gary Mar certainly had the most developed policies, but both supported continued privatization of seniors' care.Some candidates would clearly abandon the current universal seniors' drug plan, but claim they would look after the poor and needy. There was no commitment to expand the limited number of prescription drugs presently covered for seniors.There was little recognition that all care required by seniors in nursing homes is a medically necessary service that should be publicly funded. Candidates see the need for more nursing homes to relieve the pressure on hospital beds by seniors awaiting placement. However, Redford, Mar and several other candidates are prepared to give funding to corporations to own and operate such facilities.A number of them suggested that deregulation of accommodation rates was the way to encourage private providers to build and operate long-term care facilities.Several candidates did agree that they would increase support for home care for seniors medically assessed as requiring such assistance. Only Redford expressed opposition to the government practice of converting longterm care facilities to assisted living, where lower levels of care are provided.None was prepared to appoint a seniors advocate as an officer of the legislature to monitor and report on the state of seniors' care.Only Redford was prepared to require all seniors' care facilities to establish an elected patient-family council with authority to report unsatisfactory conditions to the seniors' advocate. Most important, it seems clear that, while Albertans have long opposed privatized, userpay, two-tier health care, the candidates for leadership of the PC party seem to see nothing wrong with this system for seniors. In addition, they seem not to understand that nursing homes are for people who have chronic medical conditions, who are cognitively impaired, or who are profoundly frail, and therefore should be supported by our public healthcare system.Clearly, this "here is my website, take it or leave it" monologue is unacceptable. The failure of most leadership candidates to listen to and engage with seniors groups on crucial issues is more than troubling, it is an affront to democracy.Citizens must demand more from those who would be our leaders.Noel Somerville is the chair of Public Interest Alberta's Seniors Task Force. Bill Moore-Kilgannon is the executive director of Public Interest Alberta.

This op-ed was published in the Edmonton Journal on April 25, 2010. Read the full piece on the Edmonton Journal website. Click here for Alison Redford's responses to the survey (PDF)