Long-term care reports are shameful

Cockroaches. Inadequate personal protective equipment. Our parents, our grandparents, our siblings, our friends, forced to sit and live in soiled clothing for hours, Care staff underpaid, overworked and labouring under the most stressful of circumstances.

The reports out last week that confirmed suspicions regarding the conditions in long-term care facilities in Quebec and here in Ontario have been saddening, sickening and down-right shameful. Our society, our communities will, undoubtedly, face a number of varying reckonings on the other side of COVID-19. At the top of that list should be the situation in our long term care facilities.

There are good LTCHs. There are good LTCHs locally, in the Quinte region. My grandmother spent the final eight years of her life in one and for the most part my family have glowing things to say about the care and treatment she received while in care. Every time I went to see her, I left the building with a new appreciation and respect for the staff and what their day-to-day consists of.

So let’s start there, with the front-line staff who all too often take the brunt of the blame when things go poorly. Think about doing their job on the best day, let alone during a global pandemic. These front-line workers are the glue of our communities. They volunteer to coach your kid’s soccer team. They’re your neighbour. They’re on your softball team. So why are we okay with them being so overworked and underpaid? Why do so many of them have to work at multiple facilities just to make ends meet?

The root, systemic problems that plague the industry are underfunding and lack of oversight.

Now let’s talk about the political will to address these concerns. Why are we even considering political platforms that threaten to cut funding to our healthcare system and jeopardize the well-being of front-line staff and patients?  Signs that show support for them are wonderful, but when the time comes to actually support these people, put your vote where your lawn signs or hashtags are.

Beyond the surface, the state of the industry is a microcosm of deeper inequality concerns. The data is there for everyone via a simple Google search. Studies show LTCHs are largely serviced by women, mostly populated by women, and staffed on the front lines by workers coming from marginalized communities. We have an opportunity here to empower them by providing them with much better training and development and putting them in positions to flourish. These are human beings we are entrusting to care for other human beings. They matter, their concerns matter and they need to be heard and they need to be provided the tools and bandwidth to excel at their jobs, not simply struggle to tread water. A more empowered employee is also a more empowered community member, so the payoff is well worth the investment.

If we can’t rise to this challenge, then what are our other options?  Perhaps we could take a page out of a number of other culture’s playbooks and begin caring for the elderly in our own homes.  Long term care facilities are harder to find outside of North America, the expectation being that you will take in and take care of your elderly family members when the time comes. However, history has shown that this is not our preference, so surely the focus needs to be on drastically improving the system we have now.

At the core, these reports are a human rights concern. LTCHs fall under provincial governance, a handy out for any encumbered Premier who needs to pass the buck and blame the feds for a lack of funding from Ottawa but with the amount of outrage the reports have generated, none of that matters. This can’t be a partisan political issue, it just can’t be. More people will die while back benchers bicker.

So here we are again, Canada. Do we really care? Or are we just going to talk in platitudes over and over again like we’ve done so far with Reconciliation? Are we going to demand change? Are we going to demand that our seniors, the people who built the communities we live in today, are treated with dignity in these facilities moving forward? That they’re treated like people and not cattle?  The time for government-speak is over. If you have a loved one in a care home and are concerned for their well-being, what is your appetite for watching another man in a suit utter the words “provincial jurisdiction”?

It’s time to roll up our sleeves and fix our LTCHs with a similar deployment of agility and urgency to how we reacted to COVID-19 in the first place. The problems are in plain view: lacks in funding, oversight and accountability. All sides – governments, unions, facilities management – need to take a long, hard look in the mirror to see if there is a will to turn platitudes into policies.

Mark Rose