Learning from Covid to Better Protect Seniors, August 17, 2022

One of the most important lessons learned during the Covid-19 crisis was just how vulnerable Ontario’s senior citizens are. The pandemic exposed significant shortcomings in long-term care, for example, while also highlighting existing problems such as loneliness that many seniors were already coping with when the pandemic came along and made everything worse.

Clearly, we need to do more to protect a generation whose wisdom, guidance, and hard work have been of ongoing benefit to our entire community. We are called to protect the wellbeing – and the dignity – of our older family members, friends, and neighbours and, it seems, we have a far way to go.

Consider these statistics from the Catholic Charities Seniors’ Care Report (2022): In the first wave of Covid-19, for example, 9,262 Canadians had died by September 30, 2020. Of those deaths, 7,609 – fully 82% — were seniors living in long-term care (LTC) homes, twice the average of other industrial countries around the world.

Further, for-profit LTC homes saw nearly twice as many residents infected, and 78% more resident deaths compared with not-for-profit homes.

Not only are these numbers unacceptable, they demand that we come up with alternatives, including examining what it would take to offer care to those seniors who might still be able to live at home. The Canadian Institute for Health Information, for example, estimates that one in four seniors living in an LTC residence could live at home with proper supports, an alternative that is not only more cost-efficient but surely more likely to improve the spirits of those affected.

Organizations like the Ontario Covid-19 Science Advisory Table, a group of scientists and health care professionals who have been assessing the impact of Covid to help inform health care decisions and policy, also suggest ways to improve quality of life in LTC facilities, including not only by using better infection control but also by ensuring that essential caregivers can maintain in-person contact. These are important lessons learned.

Then there is the question of justice for the vast majority of personal support workers (PSW) employed in long-term care homes. The Globe & Mail’s Andre Picard suggested that 90% of face-tVo-face work done with residents in performed by PSWs, many of whom are underpaid, poorly trained and abused by residents. In no way do these realities create a scenario that lends itself to first-rate care.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto offers a number of recommendations to improve seniors’ care, including some that can be put in place immediately, as well as in the next few years. They include closing the worst-performing LTC homes, increasing staffing for both PSWs and nurses, and offering effective and compassionate palliative care. Long-term recommendations include a payroll to fund services for vulnerable seniors, as well as ensuring that all services for vulnerable seniors be funded under the Canada Health Act.

As electors, we are called to turn to our elected officials to see what steps they are taking to ensure measures are being taken to provide the best care in long-term care homes, with healthy outcomes meaning more than profit margins.  And as people of faith, we can let our faith communities know that ensuring the wellbeing of our seniors is a key priority for us and that we want to help bring about improvements.

On top of the systemic steps that can be taken to improve long-term care, all of us can contribute in smaller ways to improving the safety—and lives—of older people in our communities.  One of the hardest aspects of the pandemic was the loneliness it created and exacerbated. When we were all told to stay home as much as possible, many seniors—and others– did not have a “bubble” to join in, or anyone checking in on them. Isolation was therefore heightened. As we continue to emerge from these exceptional times, we can all be mindful of how we can take the painful days of Covid and turn them into something good. We can make a five-minute phone call to say hello to someone we know living alone, or we can knock on the door of an elderly neighbour to ask whether they need anything picked up at the store.  We can also volunteer in the local nursing home, or visit a loved one or friend in long-term care.

We know that anxiety, loneliness and depression were rampant during Covid but these are ongoing issues that we can be more mindful of, and work to help address, in small ways.The extended pandemic period has asked a great deal of all of us and for many the price has been brutally high. Taking steps to  ensure we improve the lives of our most vulnerable seniors would be a wonderful way to show Covid that it hasn’t won.

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