Penny McCourt: Ageism in organizations and in policy is alive and well, and that must change

Opinion: People do not now believe that they would be well cared for if admitted to long-term care and dread that possibility. This is shameful.

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October 1 marks the International Day of the Older Adult, established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1990 to counteract ageism, the pervasive discrimination against older people, by calling on all countries to recognize and celebrate the value of older people everywhere.

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Sadly, ageism and ageist attitudes in our society — personal, in organizations and in policy — are alive and well today in Canada. And nowhere is this more evident than in long-term care, where ageism paved the way for Canada’s shame — the worst record for COVID deaths in long-term care homes among wealthy countries: 69 per cent of overall deaths compared to the average of 41 per cent in other wealthy countries, according to a 2021 report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

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Although COVID was the cause of so many deaths in long-term care, it was the years of ageist policy decisions that created the conditions: More than two decades of decisions to reduce funding for seniors’ programming, cuts to programs, lack of stable staffing with adequate training and outdated physical environments, have eroded quality of care and quality of life for seniors. All these issues and their impact on residents in long-term care have been well known for many years by decision makers and allowed to continue and even worsen. That these issues have remained unaddressed for so many years — despite how they have undermined the quality of care and quality of life for residents and families, and the working conditions for staff — reveal the lack of value placed on older adults living in long-term care. This must change.

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Here in B.C., ARRC (Action for Reform of Residential Care), a citizens’ group supported by families as well as care providers, union and seniors’ organizations, and researchers is demanding a complete reform of the long-term care system with the goal of improved quality of care and life for residents.

Policy decisions that have turned long-term care residents into commodities on the international stock market reflect a devaluing and dehumanizing of older adults and have fuelled business decisions over care. Inadequate monitoring of public monies provided for care have enabled for-profit care facilities owned by corporate chains to cut staff, recreation and other resident-focussed programs in favour of shareholder profit. Astonishingly, the profits of these facilities reached record heights during the pandemic while residents languished, and families were powerless and grief stricken looking in from the outside.

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During the pandemic, government decisions also revealed the devaluing of not only the residents in long-term care, but their families and staff as well. Although it was recognized early on that those living in care were at high risk for COVID, staff were not given the training, PPE or other resources to mitigate risk. Residents, families, and the public were told that lockdowns would protect residents with no acknowledgement of the well-known consequences of social isolation on seniors’ mental health and on mortality.

COVID has made the public aware that the long-term care system is broken and about the domino effect of ageist policies on the wellbeing, care, and quality of life of residents and on those who care about and for them. Since then, numerous surveys have shown that most people do not now believe that they would be well cared for if admitted to long-term care and dread that possibility. This is shameful.

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ARRC is calling upon the public to demand that our government, with input from families, residents, and those who provide or are concerned about care, examine the impact of ageist policies, practices, and attitudes on the quality of life of seniors in our long-term care system. Additionally, we demand that the government address these issues, prioritizing quality of life through regulations, effective monitoring and sufficient funding, and by empowering and supporting families and family councils to advocate for residents’ well being.

We all, seniors and seniors-to-be, must join to create a better present and future where fear of aging and of the care we might need is eliminated.

Penny McCourt is president of Action for Reform of Residential Care B.C.

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