Joel French, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, said while Canadians talk about creating a national pharmacare system, Alberta is doing the opposite, in a Feb. 12, 2020 story. (Image from Facebook)

Editorial: Alberta seniors left behind in budget

Every day that we wake up, we are a day older – all of us. Some of us have lived more days than others, but our lives are just as important. As seniors, we want access to services that allow us to live safely with dignity and comfort regardless of where we live in the province or our personal income. The rampant privatization of seniors congregate care facilities, the lack of enforceable long-term care standards, deficient staffing standards and the lack of an independent Office of a Seniors Advocate provides clear evidence that the current government does not support seniors in Alberta. The entire continuing care and long-term care systems are rooted in ageism and neglect.

The Auditor General’s report released in Feb. 2023 provides a scathing indictment of what seniors can expect in their so-called “golden years” as our physical capabilities restrict our ability to live independently. The watchdog was “shocked” to find 85 percent of the province’s 31,600 continuing care workers were part-time or casual, many of whom worked at two or more facilities. Health-care aides made up 59 per cent of the front-line workforce, but did 91 per cent of the work with patients. “I’d expect to see a model like that in a fast food franchise, not in organizations that are caring for vulnerable Albertans,” Wylie said. Indeed, yet the reality is he found this reality in seniors congregate care facilities across the province.

The audit showed that in Calgary and Edmonton, more than one-half of COVID-19 cases involving residents and staff in congregate care facilities – and nearly one-half of the total deaths to COVID in the province – were in private, for-profit facilities which account for more than 40 per cent of publicly-funded care beds. The government’s response? They ignored this stark reality and issued a press release “accepting” all the report’s recommendations without committing to addressing any of the key contributing factors – like privatization.

The report finds that care homes in Alberta (in the face of the pandemic) were caught flat-footed by “insufficient preparedness, severe staffing shortages and outdated infrastructure”. That reality should have been a wake-up call in this budget. Instead, Alberta seniors are getting more of the same from the government: privatization, underfunding, understaffing, and no enforceable standards in facilities.

And despite the crushing weight of inflation on seniors with fixed incomes, the government is set to raise continuing care accommodations rates (even at their shockingly substandard levels) by 2.4 per cent…right after this year’s election.

Quite simply, Alberta seniors deserve so much better!

And health care professionals on the frontlines do too. Collectively, they have been calling on the government to adequately staff seniors’ congregate care facilities so they can continue to provide the high quality care they all want to deliver. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Instead of investing in a real workforce strategy to recruit, train and retain health professionals, the UCP government has made unrealistic claims that they will ease the burden on our seniors care system and health care system by cutting red tape and “innovating” the system by introducing private, for-hire ambulances into emergency services. The rhetoric simply doesn’t match the real need, and nurses, LPNs, paramedics, and other much-needed professionals are leaving the field in droves.

Simply put, seniors care in this province needs a massive overhaul. By 2035, there are projected to be more than 1,000,000 (one million) seniors in Alberta. Yet, this UCP budget shows no recognition of the tragic lessons the pandemic experience demonstrated about seniors care: that the so-called “system” has been woefully neglected for decades.

So, the question is: “what now?”

For starters, we need an independent Office of the Seniors Advocate that is established by legislation and reports directly to the legislature and the public. We need an overhaul of the continuum of seniors care services that respects the rights of seniors, beginning with minimum care and staffing standards and a workforce strategy that provides adequate, high quality and affordable care for all seniors.

Anything less is unacceptable.

Terry Price, President of Public Interest Alberta Society and Retired Teacher.

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