Maybe, as a society, we just don't care about old people living the last years of their lives in nursing homes?
If there was one thing about the early stages of the pandemic that both puzzled and angered me, was the lack of concern about elderly people dying from COVID, including those who lived in nursing homes.
I found it surprising, and also sad there was so little focus in the news media on outbreaks that were killing scores of elderly people in nursing homes. The majority of the public didn’t seem to really care much either. Perhaps, as a society, we needed reassurance that the virus wouldn’t kill us and we looked at the numbers and said, “It’s really only killing elderly people and they don’t have much time left anyway.”
That annoyed me and it still does.
Last week, Alberta Auditor general Doug Wylie released his report into the way Alberta dealt with seniors in nursing homes for the first year of COVID. He reported 1,037 people living in nursing homes in Alberta died in a nine-month period from the start of the pandemic in March of 2020 until the end of the year.
That’s 1,037 parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. In just nine months.
For some reason though, there seemed to be very few alarm bells going off in the media about the situation, despite 379 COVID outbreaks. There were national stories about COVID waves sweeping through some nursing home in Ontario and Quebec, but I don’t recall much about what happened here in Alberta.
That’s despite 55-deaths being reported at Capital Care Lynwood, a nursing home in Edmonton’s west end. In a 46-day period over the Christmas holidays in 2020, 41 residents of the home died, almost one death a day.
That should have been front page news for over a week. It wasn’t.
Two of the biggest stories in Alberta in the 1980’s were the Black Friday Tornado in Edmonton in 1987 and the Hinton Train Disaster the year before. That single outbreak at Capital Care Lynwood killed more people than those two disasters combined.
Think back to the coverage the tornado and rail disaster got. The Lynwood outbreak killed more people. But they were just old folks right?
Full disclosure now. My wife and I spent more time in hospitals and nursing homes in BC’s Lower mainland last year than we want to remember, because of serious health problems involving my in-laws.
Both of my wife’s parents avoided getting COVID for the two years they lived in their home in the White Rock area, but within days of entering hospitals and nursing homes, they came down with COVID because of outbreaks.
During many of those visits last year, I thought about how things could have been done differently. I also wondered if this is just the way it is. When COVID arrives in a nursing home, is the main objective to see how few people will die? It’s like knowing you’re going to lose in a game, but you just try to keep the score close.
The people working in nursing homes do all they can, but they’re fighting a losing battle.
Auditor General Wylie called the findings in his report “simply sad” and we “we must do a better job.” I totally agree. The question is, will we?
He discovered 91% of the people providing care in Alberta nursing homes in 2020, worked part time. He said he thought a percentage that high would only be found in fast food restaurants, not nursing homes where care is given to our most elderly and fragile.
One of the reasons the virus spread so quickly in 2020 was because almost all care workers were part-time or casual and worked at two or three different facilities. Unknowingly, they helped spread it.
Maybe it’s time for provincial governments across Canada to get serious about solving the problem? A good start would be to ensure the people providing care are paid a decent salary. One eight-hour shift a day should pay enough to allow these people to only work one job. If that would happen, it would also make sense to only allow care workers to work at one facility. Even today, COVID isn’t over and there are several other viruses at nursing homes that can easily be spread by workers moving from one facility to another.
We also need more nursing homes to avoid overcrowding. I toured a relatively new nursing home last month in White Rock that was spacious and reminded me of walking into a Sheraton.
It would be nice if we cared more about elderly people and offered more options like the one in White Rock I saw.
It really comes down to one thing – money. More money needs to be put into the system for our elderly people to live the final years of their lives in dignity. More money means better care, better facilities and better lives for seniors in care facilities. Maybe the next time a disease arrives on their doorstep, fewer people will die?
It will be interesting to see what changes come from the Auditor General’s report. In five or ten years will things be different in nursing homes across the province?
I doubt it.