Saturday, November 21, 2020

Canada’s claim to value seniors & disabled people rings false during COVID-19 pandemic

By Taylor Hyatt

Euthanasia Prevention Coalition board member & disability rights activist 

Canada's Maclean’s magazine has been running a series of articles on aspects of life turned upside down in the chaos of 2020. On their list of “14 things 2020 proved wrong” is the assumption that “Canada values its seniors” – not to mention younger disabled people who also live in congregate care settings.

Author Christina Frangiou’s piece begins on a jarring note, quoting a nurse in a Toronto-area hospital who called octogenarian Mary Wilton “a waste of space” while caring for her in the summer of 2019. Ms. Wilton’s daughter, Alison, says that her mother has been on the receiving end of many forms of age discrimination in the last decade as her needs changed. In addition to “callous comments, she condemns “unaffordable housing, insufficient home care, wait lists for long-term care and a lack of support for [caregivers].” As Alison Wilton notes, “[All of these problems] existed prior to the pandemic but worsened over 2020,” and it’s all dismissed as people in power say “Well, they’re old anyway.” In addition to the ageism the Wiltons observed, these problems stem from an apathy towards disability – both in younger people and as an effect of aging.

For nearly two decades, government officials have repeatedly promised to improve long-term care, and provide other services that older adults need to remain in their homes safely. Ms. Frangiou quotes former Ontario minister of health and long-term care George Smitherman; he said in 2004: “We need to change the culture of long-term care in this province…”.

Little has changed since then. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed authorities’ lack of action – and willpower – in this department. Ms. Frangiou quotes some sobering facts:
  • “[By] the summer, over 80 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in Canada occurred in nursing and retirement home settings – nearly twice the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, even though Canada’s total COVID-19 mortality rate was comparatively lower.”
  • “[The] military was called into long-term care homes in Quebec, [and] the Canadian Red Cross was summoned into some Ontario homes” when staff became overwhelmed with the number of sick residents, or homes faced staffing shortages when personnel themselves became ill. 
  • Finally, provincial leaders are dismissing the deaths of elderly, ill, and disabled people as acceptable losses. “In Manitoba, Minister of Health Cameron Friesen [has said] that deaths in personal care homes are ‘tragic’ but ‘unavoidable.’ In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney noted this spring that many people dying from COVID had already surpassed their life expectancy.” 
I find that last point particularly revolting. To rephrase it: because a long-term care resident has already lived longer than estimated, their preventable death – from an illness that has devastating effects even on younger people who contract it – is suddenly something we should shrug our shoulders at? Of course, we can't and shouldn't expect to prolong life, especially with the use of painful and extraordinary measures. Yet why should age, or associated disabilities, make someone less worthy of treatment? 

Healthcare systems in Quebec and Ontario have already faced criticism for ableist triage protocols implemented earlier in the pandemic, and these politicians’ remarks are rooted in the same attitude. Last but not least – as I've written before, not everyone who lives in an institution is an elder at the end of life.

Ms. Frangiou continues: 
“Even before the pandemic…430,000 [Canadians] reported having unmet home care needs, according to the National Institute on Aging. Many lack the funds to pay out of pocket for care: in 2016, 14.5 per cent of older Canadians lived in low-income households, according to census data from Statistics Canada.” 
The idea that aging in place depends on how much a person can afford to save is – as Toronto geriatrician Dr. Amina Jabbar says –  “grossly inequitable.”

Euthanasia Prevention Coalition executive director Alex Schadenberg calls attempts to reform long-term care facilities “band-aids.” He hopes that, if sufficient supports are provided that “more family and community support would develop over time.” Although he “applauds” provincial governments who fund renovations to make houses more accessible, these programs are “too little, too late” compared to the much greater cost and ease of keeping someone in an institution.

Dr. Vivian Stamatopoulos, a teaching professor at Ontario Tech University, sums up the truth at the heart of the situation. 
“People don’t want to think about the elderly because it’s sad, [or] because they just don’t see them.” 
This is largely true of younger disabled people as well. Initiatives to help them live in their own homes – outside of institutions – began in earnest with Ed Roberts and other disabled American students in the 1960s. Although Canada likes to present itself as a defender of equality, we must remember that this movement only reached Canada a few decades ago. (I'm at the end of my twenties, and my parents were young children then!) Even today, advocates such as Daniel Pilote, Jonathan Marchand, Tyson Sylvester and Amy Hampton work to make a truly dignified life in the wider community possible. Unfortunately, it seems decades will pass before more Canadians realize the importance of their efforts and the thanks they are due.

1 comment:

Corrina Conlan said...

I agree with you- they are liers and do not value seniors.My daughter's and I both witnessed CHILLIWACK hospital staff on the 5th floor slowly killing Robert who has some dementia in the bed next to my moms. One time I arrived at 12 noon and left at 7pm. Robert was left in the chair the entire day and not one nurse- none came to him and he never had a visitor not one. They were giving him euthanasia drugs too.