The Pairing of Single-sport Betting with Sports Heroes Creates Problems

The intentions were good. In legalizing single-sport betting in 2021, the federal government was responding to Canadians gambling billions illegally on individual events each year. Moving the process of betting on things like the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup out of the shadows – and often the hands of organized crime – was designed to offer a safe and regulated environment, cutting off a rich resource for criminals while keeping gamblers safer.

Today, however, many are observing that the roll-out of safe betting comes, ironically, with its own risks. Some days it seems that advertising for sports betting is everywhere, whether it’s billboards on main thoroughfares, or pop-up ads while online or the frequent ads during professional sports broadcasts. A simple Internet search indicates a wealth of choices should one want to place a bet, making it incredibly easy to take a risk. As we are seeing in Ontario, the first province to legalize sports betting, this is rapidly becoming big, big business, clearly placed in public view, complete with apps to make the betting process easier.

One of the most troubling aspects of the arrival of legalized sports betting is the endorsements of some of the biggest name in professional sports in Canada, with a multi-generational approach. Wayne Gretzky, hockey superstar of the 1980s and 1990s, beams down from billboards, while Auston Matthews, currently a star with the Toronto Maple Leafs, has added his endorsement to the same company.

These are men who are revered by countless fans, and no doubt their endorsements carry weight. It’s  important to ask, therefore, about the impact such ads have on people vulnerable to a gambling addiction, or to impressionable teenagers watching sports programming at home with their families.

Anyone who becomes a big name in sports cannot help but know the influence he or she will have on a fan base. To think that an activity that carries inherent risk is now being endorsed by people placed on pedestals by millions is alarming.

Many people can buy the odd lottery ticket occasionally and that’s it in terms of taking a chance with money, but for far too many people, gambling can become an addiction that affects finances, relationships, careers and mental health. For those who are vulnerable, gambling can become a vicious circle that simply builds upon itself, increasing debt and worry while chasing after a sure thing. Betting is a very different game than hockey or basketball.

Attempting to wrest the betting industry out of the hands of criminals is a wise move, especially as it’s a move that will help protect participants. But if various levels of government are serious about legalizing the industry, they must also consider the impact of the advertising and endorsements.

We have come to understand not only the health risks of smoking, but also the temptations posed by having products out in the open, which normalizes them. Cigarette advertising is long a thing of the past, cigarettes are no longer sold in drug stores and are kept behind screens in convenience stores, and you cannot smoke a cigarette without first being confronted by the cautionary warnings on packaging.

In contrast, the beaming face of a sports star helps to glamourize betting, and the happy demeanor of big-name figures offering endorsements ignore the very real problem sports can create.  It remains puzzling that an activity that is a risk to so many people is being brought into their homes via television and the internet.

An important step as governments wrestle with the reality of sports betting would be to place restrictions on advertising and seek the advice of addiction experts on how to help minimize the impact gambling has on families and individuals. Here’s hoping these are the next step taken in what should be ongoing scrutiny to protect individuals and families for an activity that can become a demon.

 

Homeless Crisis Demands Our Immediate Attention

In 2015, the news of a man found dead in a bus shelter on a cold January night shocked the city of Toronto. People were appalled, with many calling for new measures to ensure this never happen again.

Sadly, such deaths have happened multiple times since then, with one week in 2022, it is suggested, seeing at least three cold-related deaths. Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, meanwhile, is now reporting a dramatic increase in the number of cold-related injuries it sees.

We can name many of the issues underpinning this ongoing tragedy: a shortage of shelter beds; a dislike on the part of some homeless people of the shelter system; pandemic conditions reducing the number of shelter beds available.

But recognizing the problems and repairing them are two different issues. The bottom line, simply, is this: any death related to cold in this country that could have been avoided is simply unacceptable.

We cannot solve the great challenges of the world overnight, but we certainly can work harder to offer remedies, especially at a time when we are still basking in the glow of Christmas, a season that has a housing crisis at its very core.

A start would be to create more warming centres where people could escape the brutal cold. On top of the practical response a warming centre offers by providing an escape from the elements, it also signals a community that cares, both to the users of the centres and to other citizens who may have been oblivious to the need. A caring society is more likely to respond effectively to the crisis of homelessness and we clearly need to care more.

So far this winter, Toronto has been criticized as slow to respond to the needs of those living on the streets, in spite of brutal weather forecasts. On top of responding in a timely manner, though, we clearly need more services available as a tough economy forces more people onto the streets.

Plans to increase affordable housing take more time. There are buildings to be built, and bylaws to be amended. But a call to your city councilor’s office to let staff know housing issues are important to you is one way to keep attention focused on this issue and to move the process along, as well as to create more warming centres as an emergency stop-gap.

Some in the city are noting that Toronto recently found an extra $40-million to put toward policing. Let elected representatives know you care about the lives of the people living on the streets. If we have more money for policing, we should also have more money for the homeless.

It’s easy to be critical and judgmental, especially of people we do not know, and especially when the unavoidable reality of others’ pain makes us uncomfortable. It’s easier to point fingers than to share responsibility. But no matter what failings someone has, cold and hunger can kill. Every single person alive deserves a roof over their head and food to eat. If that is not our minimum expectation for all people we have a far, far way to go, not only as a society, but also as individuals.,

An open letter to Toronto Mayor John Tory, drafted by Rev. Alexa Gilmour, National Drector of the Stone Soup Network, is currently circulating, asking for an immediate increase in the number of warming centres in the city. Catholic Charities will be signing the letter, and we urge leaders of various denominations and faith-based agencies to sign as well. Here is the link: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScT5rhTgR4CANU1QH1Mi3pVkWBcMNhssLqbUFJt75-VVPA_Ug/viewform

As winter digs in for the next several weeks, we are called to remember Matthew 25:40: “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly as I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

Help shield our most vulnerable from the cold.

Warm Wishes for Michael Fullan as he Begins Retirement

For the past 29 years, Michael Fullan’s official title has been Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto (CCAT).

But his colleagues, his friends, and the many people he engages with daily know his real vocation is that of teacher. Anyone who comes in contact with Michael walks away having learned something, whether  it is about Catholic Charities’ procedures and current government social policy, the Church in Toronto over the past several decades, how to diffuse a tense situation with a dose of charm, patience and a little bit of humour, or just what it means to be a decent person who lives his faith daily.

For decades, Michael, a social worker by training, has been a leader in the archdiocese not only because of the authority his title carries but also because he leads by example. As someone who embraces not only the Gospel but also the Catholic Social Teaching that flows from Scripture, he is an example of faith in action, a man who understands that “love your neighbour as yourself’ means not just thinking warm thoughts but also rolling up your sleeves, calling on your particular talents and labouring in the vineyard (a parable he cites frequently) to help build the kingdom of God.

Michael’s first day with Catholic Charities was September 27, 1993, a day of great significance for him because not only is it the anniversary of the founding of CCAT, but it is also the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Charities’ patron, as well as the anniversary of Michael’s marriage to his wife, Frances.

In the intervening years, Michael has worked tirelessly to help the people on the peripheries of society because he knows the needs, some days, can seem bottomless. He has consistently inspired people to be ahead of troubling trends in society. Rather than simply bemoan the rise of medical assistance in dying (MAID), for example, he has lobbied to improve and increase palliative care services for those with chronic and life-limiting illnesses. And he was already heavily involved in increasing programs for the elderly by the time COVID-19 arrived and revealed, in horrifying ways, the plight of so many of our older people.

He has consistently thought creatively about how to help as many people as possible and garnered respect of all who encounter him due to his humble, kind, and caring personality. And when CCAT marked its 100th anniversary in 2012, Michael engaged in the celebrations as if he were honouring a beloved family member.

In a statement announcing Michael’s retirement as of the end of this month, CCAT Board President Maureen Leon called Michael a bridge builder between member agencies, the board and those CCAT serves.

“His unwavering dedication to those in need is an inspiration to everyone who has had the good fortune to work with him,” she said. “He has consistently approached his role with patience and good humour, bringing out the best in people, allowing them to do their best for the people we serve.”

He is all of these things, of course, as well as a loving husband, a dedicated father of three and grandfather of eight, a dear friend to many and a man of great faith.

Michael, you will be missed.

Good health and Godspeed.

Advent

Each year, the busy-ness of the weeks leading up to Christmas can make it all to easy to lose track of the fact that, for Catholics, the weeks of Advent are a time of preparation not just forb parties and presents, get-togethers and relaxation, but also a period in which to be mindful of the coming of Christ.

Advent is itself a gift, as it calls us to reflect on the reality that Christ comes into our lives in many ways. Yes, the
Christmas story means we recall the profound mystery of the Christ child entering into human history some 2,000 years ago. The iconography of mangersand Wise Men you’ll find on Christmas cards reminds us of that truth. But in pondering the birth of Christ, we also become mindful that his birth was not a random event but, in fact, a promise of salvation with the resurrection that followed holding out to all people the hope of eternal life when Christ comes again.  As Catholics, we believe that Godsent Jesus, his son, to earth to save us from our brokenness, our sin, offering us great hope. Christ will come again – and Christmas is a time to remind us of
how to prepare for that day as well as celebrate it.

But it is the third way that Christ entersour lives, on a daily basis, that is the most immediate for the member agencies of Catholic Charities. If we are watching – and listening – we will find the face of Christ in every single person we encounter – every day — as Catholics believe that all people, no matter their background or beliefs, are made in the image and likeness of God. This is the essential underpinning of our member agencies, and the prime motivation for their work.  Whether it’s our neighbour, the stranger next to us in the grocery store, or even the person at work who really gets under our skin – all are a reminder and a reflection of the presence of God in our lives. When we embrace that truth, the notion of working for the common good not only make sense but also takes on a new urgency.

In thinking of the Christmas story, we’ll find at its roots many human vulnerabilities. Mary found herself pregnant
outside of marriage. She and Joseph faced the challenge of not having a roof over their heads when their child was born. The new family could not immediately return to their home after the birth of Christ but fled as migrants
due to an evil ruler’s commands and a hostile environment at home.

While the Christmas story is unique, it speaks to all of us, and it certainly informs the work of Catholic Charities’ member agencies, whether the call is to help teenaged mothers and the underhoused, refugees and other persecuted people, or so many of the people who find themselves on the margins of society. Two thousand years on, people continue to face similar struggles and we continue to be called to help.

The life of Jesus, as seen in the Gospels, is an important model for us as to how we are to treat others, because even the simplest gesture of support or kindness helps make the world a better place, helping us build the kingdom of God.

So if you haven’t yet done so, take some quiet time in the coming days to ponder the gift of Christmas. Imagine the life of the young Mary being changed forever by the Archangel Gabriel. Think of the courage inherent in her saying Yes to what was asked of her, perhaps the greatest leap of faith ever.

And then think of your neighbour, think of the stranger in line at the grocery store, and think of your troublesome
colleague – and ponder what you might do to help. 

Merry Christmas!

Dying – and Living– with Dignity, November 21, 2022

The concept of medical assistance in dying (MAID) had been making headlines long before the Canadian government first introduced federal legislation in 2016 to end the ban on medical personnel being able to help patients end their lives.

That legislation has been expanded since then, and as of March, 2023 people with mental illnesses will also be eligible to opt for MAID.

The latest report from Ottawa on medical assistance in dying, which offers statistics for 2021, indicates that 10,064 MAID deaths took place in Canada last year, a figure which represents 3.3% of all deaths in Canada in 2021. That figure is up 32.4% over 2020, and anecdotal evidence suggests the practice continues to rise.

In the years since legislation was first introduced, we have seen many profiles of people who have opted to end their lives with input from doctors, nurse-practitioners, pharmacists and even family members.

These stories are often positioned as offering the suffering ones “death with dignity.” But as these stories unwind, often featuring not only great pain but also loneliness, isolation, poverty, and mental health challenges, they shine a light on how society has not done enough to provide all Canadians with a life dignity long before we determine what a death with dignity actually entails.

As Catholics, we believe our dignity is inherent because we are made in the image and likeness of God: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gn. 1”27) What could be more dignified that reflecting our Creator?

A wealth of Catholic Social Teaching reminds us that we are each invaluable and that our lives are sacred. It also tells us that we are members of a society, with responsibilities for each other. Therefore, a rising number of MAID cases should call out to us that we are falling behind in our responsibilities because we are called to care for our brothers and sisters. They are not a burden but a reflection of God.

The inability of a person with medical issues to meet the rent should never be cited as one of the motivations seek out an end to life. Nor should the need to use a food bank. That these challenges exist – and to such an extent that life no longer seems worth living for vulnerable people–should call out to the rest of us to offer assistance. These needs are why we talk about corporal works of mercy, the responsibilities we face as members of the human race.

Similarly, when someone cites loneliness as a reason to lose interest in life, our hearts should turn immediately to the essential Catholic doctrine of loving one’s neighbour. Even Christ himself suffered the pain of loneliness, calling out to his sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Can you not keep awake one hour?” (Mk 14:37) We are not to turn away because we are troubled by the suffering, but instead are called to answer, responding to that suffering.

Questions surrounding physical and mental suffering require medical expertise that goes far beyond the knowledge of the average lay person, but we can call out for more funding for medical research into various diseases, as well as into enhanced pain relief. We can also lobby for more funding for good palliative care, which can significantly improve the quality of life for dying patients. Sadly, the World Health Organization estimates that only about 14% of people who would benefit from palliative care have access to it.

On a good day, each of us knows that life is a beautiful gift. That beauty of that gift can soon become tarnished, however, when we feel lonely or frightened or are hurting. If we can focus on each of us being made in the image and likeness of God, we can be reminded of our worth, and the worth of others. When life becomes difficult, and the suffering that is an inevitable part of life, looms over us, we should be able to trust that our neighbours, and the society to which we belong, will help us and care for us. If we cannot answer with confidence, we need to do more.

Ending the perception that MAID is the only answer to suffering will not be easy. In some quarters, it will take a radical overhaul of our understanding of what our responsibilities are as part of the human family. It will take practical organization to ensure we are responding to isolation, that we are doing more to study pain relief, that we can offer strong, dignified palliative care.

We do not live only for ourselves, but for each other, too. That an increasing number of people see death as the only solution to problems should tell all of us that we have a great deal of work to do to support each other in times of sickness and suffering.

This we can say for certain: it will be work with – and for – dignity.

Seeking Inspiration from St. Vincent de Paul, September 27, 2022

It is no coincidence that Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto marks our anniversary on September 27, the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul. Vincent, patron saint of charities, has served as a constant inspiration for Catholic Charities staff and our member agencies since our founding in 1913.

Born into a simple family in Pouy, France in 1581, Vincent proved to be a gifted student and was ordained in 1600. He founded the Congregation of the Missions – now known as the Vincentians – in 1625 and then the Daughters of Charity, a group designed to support Catholic women in their charitable work with various groups of people in need.

While today he is remembered for many things, including reforming the clergy, St. Vincent de Paul is best known for working with numerous vulnerable groups, including work in prisons and hospitals, with  those suffering the effects of war and enslavement, and the poor on the streets of Paris. Today, those actions serve as inspiration for Catholic Charities and other Catholic agencies, as well as for the international lay association, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which bears his name.

As someone who is revered as a saint and whose name is associated with acts of charity, it may be surprising to learn that Vincent could sometimes be – well – grouchy. Cranky. Not the kind of behaviour that we traditionally associate with the canonized. In time, it is said, his temperament softened but it is, frankly, not only surprising but also reassuring that a man with very human characteristics could bring about such good in the world.

If St. Vincent was somewhat testy at times, it only serves to remind us that, though we are human, we are all called to sainthood – to recognize the face of Christ in others, responding with dignity, compassion and kindness to their needs, whether those needs are practical, emotional, or spiritual. We are not only capable of such acts, in spite of our failings and weaknesses, but we are called to do so, and serving our neighbours helps not only them but also helps us to learn about the world around us, putting us in touch with our potential for living full and rewarding lives.

St. Vincent de Paul is said to have taught, “Go to the poor: You will find God.” His simple, heartfelt instruction resonates with us. A quick read of news headlines reminds us of all the poverty in the world today, which can take many forms. At its most essential, it’s a lack of money to provide housing and food for people to care for themselves and their families, but it can also take many other shapes, with loneliness and spiritual emptiness being just two examples.

Today, Catholic Charities and our 21 member agencies serve many of our neighbours – for example, new parents, those who are new to Canada, people facing physical challenges, or the elderly–with a variety of services, support and advocacy. Each day is unique and requires an open mind and creative thinking to be able to respond productively because, after all, like St. Vincent de Paul, we are only human!

We are grateful to have such an inspiring patron for the daily work that takes place under the Catholic Charities umbrella, and we give thanks for the many agency employees and volunteers who are working so hard to make a difference. We also pray for all who access services associated with Catholic Charities, that they may find the help they need to lead healthy, happy lives.

St. Vincent de Paul, pray for us!

Coping with September: “We’re All in This Together”, September 12, 2022

The stress that comes with September is inevitable, whether it’s helping your children settle into a new routine and schedule at school or saying goodbye to the often more relaxed pace of summer, acknowledging that life can all too easily get hectic overnight.

This year, however, brings a unique combination of challenges for both children and parents. A return to the classroom after two-and-a-half years of online learning will be adjustment enough for many families but it comes at a time when parents may be feeling added stresses due to the increasing strain inflation has put on the family budget and the daily headlines are full of worrisome topics that can upset both children and parents.

One of the best ways to respond to stress is to recognize that it is real and then talk through what is causing it. A child returning to a classroom after such a long time away from that routine may be anxious about the unknown – “What will my teacher be like? Will he/she be mad at me if I’ve forgotten routines?” or “Will the classmate I found intimidating still scare me?” or “Is COVID still something to worry about? Should I wear a mask even if I get teased?”–and a good, strong line of communication is the best way to begin to respond. Try to open up those lines of communications by asking questions  that can’t be answered with a Yes or No or one-word answer. Instead of “How was your day?” try posing questions like “What was the best part of your day?” which offer a better chance of a child responding with cues as to how the day went and where some of the stresses are. Instead of guessing what a child’s artwork is about, say, “Tell me about your painting.” Offer children opportunities to engage, and remind them in the calmer moments that you are always willing to hear anything, and that one of your responsibilities as a parent is to help them through tough times. (That does not mean, by any stretch, that it’ll be easy, but if your children know this is your philosophy, they’ll be more likely to come to you in tough times. We know young people are feeling stressed. If you have a sense of your child, spotting signs of stress will be easier.)

Remember that you are a partner in your child’s success in school. That doesn’t mean completing his/her work but it does mean checking a younger child’s agenda to see if there are any notes from the teacher about issues in the classroom or assignments that require supplying materials or some form of parental input or participation. While the nature of the partnership changes as children age, it’s still a good idea to ask your high school children whether there are ways you can lend support. If your child knows you care, he/she will be more likely to turn to you for help.

While it’s been frequently stated since cellphones became a tool that even young children own, it bears repeating: carve out non-screen time every day so that there is time for conversation or other forms of information-gathering and entertainment. That stands for parents as well as for children! As old-fashioned as it sounds, the dinner table should be family time, with no Google or TikTok allowed. The dinner table should be a place of respect and sharing, and if there is a dependable routine, children will feel safer raising thorny or scary topics. Even if you are shielding your children from the unsettling news of the day, they may well have heard tough topics raised at school, and if you know what is troubling them you are in a much better position to engage. And if they ask you questions about your own concerns, seek the right balance of honesty and the right amount of information to offer. We never want to scare our children with our adult concerns but should they hear you talking about the price of groceries or gas and they ask you about it, for example, it may open a window to talking about responsible budgeting or the importance of financial prudence.

Ask a child to help you prepare dinner or engage in another chore with you. Sometimes the most important information will emerge when children aren’t feeling grilled for details. It will also help model for them that chores are a part of daily life, and that we all engage in them not only for ourselves but for others, too.  Knowing that you enjoy and appreciate their help can be a real morale-booster for children, increasing self-esteem and a sense of responsibility.

Of course, you want to ensure a respectful and productive relationship with your child(ren’s) teacher(s), too. Remember that this fall will be challenging for teachers, too, as they get back into the swing of in-person classes with students who may need some extra patience.

Finally, remember that this fall will be a whole new experience for all of us. It may take more work for all of us as we learn what the new normal looks like. As you look after your children, look after yourselves, too. The saying that was on everyone’s lips at the beginning of the pandemic still holds: “We are all in this together.”

Rising Food Prices Prompt Tough Choices for Those on a Tight Budget, September 6, 2022

If you’ve been to your local grocery store lately you likely left feeling sticker shock after paying the bill. Even with the arrival of some of Ontario’s bountiful, beautiful, local produce, it’s obvious to anyone who handles meal planning and shopping that prices are headed in one direction: sky high.

Now think of what it’s like for someone already on a tight budget, counting down to the last cent in hopes of being able to buy enough food to cover off the month. What happens to these people as inflation creeps upward, with prices also rising due to lingering supply chain issues? Further complicating things for some will be a cut in wages due to reduced hours or pandemic-related layoffs. That’s hard enough to begin with, but what happens if you have children to feed as well?

Then add in all the other basic –and necessary– expenses like the soaring rents in the Greater Toronto Area and the cost of getting to work, and it’s a recipe for increased hunger and poorer nutrition.

For people experiencing what is known as food insecurity –defined by Health Canada as the inability to acquire or consume an adequate diet quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so—these are frightening times.

Statistics from the organization Ontario Dieticians in Public Health suggest that 13% of people in Ontario live with food insecurity, a figure that touches 1 in 6 children. And as many as 20% of Canadians are reporting skipping meals because of rising costs.

For many low-income Canadians, many of them elderly or disabled, the challenge of rising costs further aggravates the existing challenge of living in a food desert, with few grocery stores within walking distance. The City of Toronto, for example, says fully 31,000 households in low-income areas of the city are situated more than a kilometre’s walking distance to the nearest grocery store.

All this means less choice. Bananas and broccoli may be on sale at Fred’s Grocery Store, but Fred’s is three kilometres away and you can’t afford a transit ticket. That leaves you no choice but to go to Stan’s Convenience Store, where choices are limited and prices are higher – for the convenience.

Fewer choices, whether due to access to groceries or because of price limiting a shopper’s options, can have a negative impact on health, happiness and productivity.

For thousands of Canadians, food banks are a part of life, with more than 840,000 Canadians receiving help from a food bank every month. Statistics from FoodBanksCanada reveal that almost two in five users are children and youth, and 1 in 10 arriving at food banks each month are first-time users.

There are numerous reasons for food bank use, ranging from job loss to income failing to cover essential expenses. But as important a role as food banks play, we can never forget that they are not a permanent solution but, instead, a band-aid fix. Food banks rely heavily on donations, which can vary and are subject to fluctuations. Equally important is that food banks were never introduced as a solution, and as a society we cannot rely on them rather than find permanent answers to solve the question of food insecurity.

 As with so many societal issues, there are no quick fixes. Donating to – or volunteering with –food banks and other charities can help ease the immediate challenge. But we are called to educate ourselves on the challenges our neighbours face – and we are also called, as members of the human family, to respond by offering not only help bub solutions.

There are many places to learn more about proposals to address food insecurity.  Food Banks Canada, for example, has some excellent resources to learn more about ways we can ease this shocking problem.

By understanding the issues and possible responses, you can ask candidates running for office what their positions are on q food insecurity, making them aware that you are concerned. You can make your voice heard in community consultations on issues like zoning, brainstorming with suggestions like requiring developers proposing new projects to subsidize grocery stores to ensure everyone has reasonable access. Creative thinking can go a long way to responding to this crisis.

A society where everyone knows where their next meal comes from promises to be a more secure, productive, and just society – and isn’t that what everyone wants?

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.

St. Anne and the Special Role of Grandparents, August 2, 2022

It was a profoundly powerful experience to watch Pope Francis visit Lac Ste. Anne, a pilgrimage site in Alberta of particular importance to many Indigenous people in Canada. As the official Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage website notes, the lake was “first called Wakamne or God’s Lake by the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation who live on the west end of the Lake, and Manito Sahkahigan or Spirit Lake by the Cree.” That the visit came on July 26, the Feast of St. Anne, was especially significant. St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin, holds a special place for many Indigenous Catholics because she was a grandmother to Jesus and, in Indigenous communities, family members – and especially elders – are treated with particular reverence and respect. This visit, then, on a feast day of such significance to many Indigenous Canadians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, signaled to many a renewed commitment on the part of the Pope to listen, to engage, and to work harder to understand Indigenous communities.

On a visit designed to carry forward conversations about how to bring about reconciliation and healing over the pain caused by residential schools, the Pope chose wisely in addressing the importance of grandparents to families. Those of us who have no experience of how families were broken apart when children were forcibly taken away from their families and sent off to residential schools cannot begin to imagine the sufferings of the children, of their parents or of their other family members, including grandparents.

In a happy extended family, grandparents can be a great a source of wisdom for their children, helping them develop into confident, capable parents, with grandparents offering tips on everything from how to calm a colicky baby to setting boundaries for teenagers. Grandparents can be a wonderful help in caring for children, doing after-school pick-ups, or providing weary parents with childcare so Mom and Dad an get a break and refresh their relationship. There are endless ways in which grandparents enrich family life.

For grandchildren, grandparents are a unique source of family stories, sharing family histories in a way parents often simply don’t have time to do. Without the day-to-day worries and stresses that come with caring for a young family, grandparents can focus on offering their grandchildren a healthy dose of doting, non-judgmental love, a love that is returned many times over from appreciative grandchildren. The bond between a grandparent and a grandchild can be one of life’s sweetest pleasures for families, and to have that relationship disrupted can cause immeasurable loss. Thus, in acknowledging the importance of grandparents, it appears the Pope was again offering acknowledgement of some of the pain the residential schools caused to so many, while also again affirming an oft-heard message of this that age does not wither value, even if roles and duties shift. We all offer value to our communities – and our families.

We don’t know much about St. Anne or her husband, St. Joachim. In fact, she is not even mentioned in the canonical gospels. What we do know about Anne and Joachim comes to us from Church tradition. It isn’t hard, though, to imagine two loving grandparents who likely worried frantically for their daughter when her pregnancy was announced, two loving grandparents who fell head over heels in love with their grandson when they learned of his birth. We can picture a grandmother and grandfather who celebrated moments like the presentation in the temple, or worried when the young Jesus couldn’t be found, just as all grandparents live out moments of celebration and worry. To turn to St. Anne, then, for guidance and support in family matters makes a great deal of sense – and especially for those of us who are grandparents! Recognizing the particular importance of St. Anne to our Indigenous brothers and sisters is a sign of the importance of preserving and protecting family bonds.

St. Anne, who is patron saint of the province of Quebec, has long held a special place for many Canadians. The site we now call Lac Ste. Anne has been recognized in Indigenous communities as a deeply spiritual place long from before the Catholic Church was established in Canada. With the wisdom of a grandmother, St. Anne can help us ponder these realities, these two unique but complementary understandings, in respectful and productive ways.

St. Anne, pray for us.