Coronavirus death toll forces us to face need to fix longterm care

Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”
- From the song “Hello in there” by John Prine -

IT COULD BE THE MOTHER OF ALL WAKEUP CALLS. The coronavirus is killing too many of our old people, in too many of our longterm care homes, too often. The message is clear: It’s time to do something serious about the criminally haphazard and inadequate system of longterm care in Canada. In fact, it’s long past time.

“If ever there was a canary in the coal mine, this is it,” says CLI (Canadian Labour Institute) president James Clancy. “Except it’s not canaries we are ready to sacrifice, it’s our old people.”

Nearly half of all coronavirus-related deaths in Canada happen in long-term care homes. Longterm care homes in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia have all recorded deaths by the dozens. Giving them death rates of more than 50% among residents who got the virus. It’s a reality shocking enough to open the home operators to police investigations that could lead to charges of “depraved indifference” and “criminal neglect.”

The sad reality is that the sorry state of operations in our longterm care homes is old news. Study after study documents our failings. Years and years of casual indifference and neglect document our failing to do anything to fix it. Some even suggest abandoning old people is not so bad.

British Columbia Conservative MP Marc Dalton, for example, put his thoughts on this into a tweet on April 13. He wrote: “Most deaths are in care homes where average life expectancy is 2 yrs & 65% usually pass in the 1st yr. Time to start moving Canada back to work?”

No return to old ‘normal’

“Thinking like that scares and angers me,” says Clancy. “It asks us to accept the unacceptable as normal. Abandoning old people to their fate is not normal. It’s up to us to make sure it never becomes normal.

“When we ‘return to normal’ we must be sure it is nothing like what longterm care too often was and still is.”

Clancy points to a 2012 study from NUPGE (National Union of Public and General Employees) as a good place to start looking for suggestions on what is needed to create a national comprehensive longterm care system.

The 53-page study has not aged at all. This is not good. The insights and recommendations in the report capture a 2012 reality that remains all too true today.  Longterm care in Canada is a lottery too many of our seniors won’t ever win. The level, quality and cost of care is unpredictable at best—deadly at worst.

“What is needed,” says Clancy “is not so much an overhaul, as a complete teardown and rebuiding from the ground up, beginning with one of the key recommendations in the NUPGE report: adding a right to longterm health care to our Medicare ideal.”

Medicare for all—including seniors

Medicare is founded on five bedrock principles—namely, reasonable access to quality treatment of any and all ‘medically necessary’ conditions, for anybody, anywhere, for free.

“How longterm care gets left out is beyond me,” says Clancy. “Any genuine effort to provide adequate and dependable care to all our elderly has to begin by making it part of our federal Medicare program—and that means eliminating all for-profit care homes.”

Clancy says adding longterm care to the Canada Health Act requires nothing beyond the political will to do it. But even changing the law won’t be enough. “We have to look for the real truth of life in nursing homes and then act on what we find. We have to do than now, today. The coronavirus truth leaves us no choice.”

Read the NUPGE report Dignity Denied 2012 HERE

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