Opinion: Fix the long-term care horror

There’s a long-term-care crisis in Canada that is crying out for short-term, very practical action.

Unfortunately, until this pandemic gripped the country, short-term fixes were not the federal government’s area of expertise. Nor is on-the-ground service delivery, as many of Canada’s Indigenous communities can attest.

It is now abundantly clear that what’s needed to repair the broken long-term-care system in Canada goes far beyond the usual round of government solutions, which too often boil down to bureaucratic processes: federal-provincial talks, inquiries, commissions and meetings.

Even the increasingly popular cries for a “national strategy” or “national standards” aren’t really all that hands-on or immediate. Strategies, we should remember, are just plans to accomplish things, and national standards are ultimately wishes, not results.

The chronic problems at Canada’s long-term-care institutions have been thrown into stark relief because governments stepped out of their safe zone of process and strategy when they called in the military.

The Canadian Forces personnel dispatched to reinforce resources at long-term-care homes in Ontario and Quebec didn’t hold meetings: They got down to work and almost immediately revealed the horror shows operating within several of the institutions.

There’s nothing abstract or bureaucratic about what they saw: elderly people living in pain, distress and very unhealthy conditions. When one learns that some patients of these institutions have been left sitting in soiled diapers for hours, calls for help unheeded, the natural, human reaction is not to say, “We should hold a meeting about this.”

But old habits die hard, even in a pandemic, and even the best-intentioned politicians, while acknowledging the kick in the gut they received from these findings, are lapsing back into process-speak.

“Absolutely, we need to have conversations about how we care for our elders in this country, right across the country, and respecting provincial jurisdiction, respecting that there are areas that have greater success and fewer problems than others,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday after the newest military report on long-term-care conditions in Quebec.

Trudeau used the word “conversation” nearly a dozen times in his daily briefing when discussing what Ottawa was going to do about the long-term-care nightmare.

Federal Treasury Board president Jean-Yves Duclos was talking on Wednesday about conversations, administration and jurisdiction, too.

“There’s a normal administrative process that needs to be followed,” Duclos said at the ministerial briefing in Ottawa.

In several decades of reporting on politics, I’ve grown wary (and weary) of this idea that a meeting is a result in itself — or the suggestion that having a plan is the same as actually implementing one.

Stories about these developments make for some of the most agonizingly tedious journalism in the world, too. “Meeting planned” may rank right up there with “worthy Canadian initiative” among the world’s most boring headline phrases.

This is what has made the pandemic such a bracing change from politics as usual in government-land these past few months. Politicians are not just coming up with meetings and processes, but delivering real, tangible cheques and services to change people’s lives.

Trudeau has acknowledged throughout this crisis that government has slipped into a more practical gear to deal with the pandemic.

“We are being as nimble as we possibly can to respond to what’s working, to what perhaps isn’t working as we had hoped it would,” he said earlier this month.

Ottawa — and the provinces — need to stay in that gear to fix long-term care, not later, but now. Anxious families with relatives in long-term-care homes are not going to be reassured that governments are at work on planning meetings to come up with strategies and processes, or even national standards.

Nor are they going to be comforted by the idea that governments are going to get to work on sorting out who’s in charge of long-term-care homes.

Shuffling the issue from provinces up to the federal government might make some feel better, but that doesn’t mean the problem has received a promotion.

Again, Canada’s Indigenous communities can relate many stories of what happens when health and community-care issues on the ground get the Ottawa treatment.

It’s worth remembering that Stephen Harper was only unable to fulfil one of the five big promises he made on coming into office in 2006 — solving wait lists for health care. Making this real difference in people’s lives was beyond the federal skill set.

We are living in a time of physical distancing, but fixing the long-term-care horrors is not a job that can be done at a distance, as the hands-on military intervention revealed.

Meetings and conversations won’t cut it. The residents of long-term-care homes need to be rescued right now.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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