Calls to stop the closure of Michener Centre are ricocheting around Alberta after reports that five former Michener Centre residents died soon after moving out of the Red Deer facility.
So far 43 residents have moved since the province announced its controversial decision in March 2013 to close older buildings on Michener’s north and south sides, forcing the relocation of 120 of Michener’s severely developmentally disabled residents.
The decision came as a shock to families who had long been promised that residents could live out their lives at Michener. According to the Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre, the five deaths occurred this year within two to four months of the residents leaving Michener.
“There can be no question that shuffling around highly fragile individuals has created untold horror stories and declining health outcomes for residents,” said Wildrose human services critic Kerry Towle, at a press conference at the Legislature on Thursday.
“To be very clear, we are not saying the province caused these deaths at all. What we’re saying is that they didn’t need to be moved and the move itself was cruel, and cruel to the families.”
Towle said Premier Dave Hancock has the power today to put an immediate end to moving Michener residents and to commit to keeping the facility open.
In a statement released on Thursday, Associate Minister for Persons with Disabilities Naresh Bhardwaj expressed condolences to families who are grieving and said if anyone has any evidence to suggest the needs of a former Michener resident are not being met, or that a death was caused by a transition to another care setting, they are asked to speak with the appropriate authorities.
“We have every confidence in the care providers and medical professionals who ensure individuals receive equal or better care than what they had while at Michener. We do regular follow-ups and check-ins with every individual who has moved into the community to ensure their needs are being met and that any concerns are addressed immediately,” Bhardwaj said.
In Calgary, Alberta Liberal Human Services critic David Swann also demanded suspension of further transfers of Michener residents until the conclusion of a proper investigation into the five deaths.
In a released statement, Swann said the Progressive Conservative government has never presented a solid case for closing Michener.
“They have presented no facts or evidence to demonstrate that transferring residents from Michener into care homes is in the best interests of these vulnerable Albertans. These five deaths suggest very powerfully that this government may be very tragically wrong in its decision,” Swann said.
“It is time to halt all further transfers of Michener residents so that a thorough investigation into these five deaths can be conducted. It would be deeply irresponsible for this PC government to continue with these transfers until we have the full facts,” Swann said.
NDP health critic David Eggen, who spoke out from Edmonton, said the moves appear to be too much for residents.
“It seems like (five deaths) is an unacceptably high number. We consider it very important to pause the transfers and investigate the affect of them on patients’ health. I think that’s an imminently reasonable, responsible thing to do,” Eggen said.
Moving fragile individuals can worsen conditions, he said.
“It’s just putting two and two together here.”
Towle said the uncertainty of the PC leadership contest has created a vacuum in leadership throughout the government “paralyzing our current leaders to act.”
“The current Human Services Minister Manmeet Bhullar, who is also the campaign chair for (Jim) Prentice’s leadership campaign, has an opportunity to show a basic sense of compassion for Michener residents and their families. But both himself and Mr. Prentice, refuse to take action and do the right thing,” Towle said.
Bill Lough. president of the Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre, said the society to meet with Bhullar about the five deaths.
“He is ultimately responsible for what happens under his watch,” Lough said.
He said if the society had not spoken up about the deaths, Albertans would be in the dark.
“I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to connect the dots here.
“Yes they do die (at Michener) but at least they die in a home that they know and have been familiar with for decades and surrounded by people who understand them and give them support and dignity in their last days.”
He said the society is also growing impatient waiting for Prentice to meet with them.
“We are having as much trouble to communicate with this man as we did with Redford. To date, he has managed to match the Redford record of not visiting Michener.”
And they aren’t going to just accept his promise to review the closure if he becomes premier, he said.
“We want a position in respect to Michener.”
Diane Esslinger, who is the guardian of her brother Larry who still lives at Michener, said she is appalled by the five deaths.
“I have a sinking feeling in my stomach. I don’t know how much longer my brother will be alive,” Esslinger said.
Larry is 52 and has lived at Michener for 50 years.
“Larry is very fragile. He has quite a host of medical problems. In the last couple of years his health has declined. I truly believe that the only reason he is alive and with us today is because of the exemplary care and the love and the kindness of the people who care for him now at Michener,” said Esslinger who spoke at the Wildrose press conference.
Larry was born with cerebral palsy and micro-cephalis.
He doesn’t talk, has profound cognitive impairment, is severely spastic in all four limbs, and has a seizure disorder that requires him to be fed by a tube.
“There is no date scheduled for Larry to move out at this point because I’m refusing to engage in that conversation. Larry’s home is at Michener and he needs to remain at Michener.
“Michener Centre needs to remain open for the people who currently live there and those who have left and who wish to return need to be able to have the option to return,” Esslinger said.