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Long-term Care: Are we failing our seniors?

Posted: April 28, 2017

(November 1, 2016)

By: Heather Rivers, Woodstock Sentinel-Review

WOODSTOCK – It’s not the staff’s fault, it’s the system.

As news sinks in that Woodstock resident Elizabeth Wettlaufer has been charged with eight counts of first-degree murder in a long-term care facility – seven of which occurred in Woodstock and one in London – locals are left trying to figure out under what circumstances a tragedy like this could happen.

Many experts and long-term care workers are hoping the Woodstock tragedy will be a starting point to cast a spotlight on a flawed system they say needs to be revisioned and reformed

“They just can’t do enough for these people. There is not enough staff to do the job that needs to be done,” said an Oxford County personal support worker (PSW) whose mother suffers from dementia and resides in a long-term care facility. “They are treated like a bunch of cattle. They even tell us how much briefs (diapers) to use for each patient. It’s disgusting.”

While the PSW, who has worked in the industry for decades, said she would love to use her name, a fear of being fired prevents her.

“We do not have enough staff, that’s why things fall through the cracks – like the (alleged) murders in Woodstock,” she said. “As long as the ministry is dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s, they are shutting a blind eye to the reality of it.

“Their reality is a paper reality.”

Horror stories, she said, do happen.

Even though her mother could walk, she had to be make the heart-wrenching decision to confine her to a wheelchair to prevent her from suffering frequent falls. Physiotherapy that would have helped her continue to walk promised by the facility just never appeared, and the result was tragic.

“My mother has never walked again,” she said. “It makes me sick to my stomach.”

Besides dealing with a lack of staff, PSWs also have to deal with another challenge.

“The PSWs work so hard and often they get hit (by residents),” she said.

Workplace violence is rampant and workers are prohbid from talking about it, another former PSW said.

“The violence is mind blowing,” said Betty, a former frontline worker in a long-term care facility in Oxford County, who spoke to the Sentinel-Review weeks before eight first-degree murder charges were laid against Wettlaufer. “You have the expectation that, if you go into work, you are going to get hurt. Staff aren’t allowed to talk about when they get punched or spit on.”

Betty, whose name has been changed because she fears retribution from her former employer, is sharing her story because she believes change needs to happen in long-term care facilities due to atrocities occurring to both residents and staff.

Betty once worked with Wettlaufer in a long-term care facility in Oxford County that is not Caressant Care. Betty said the lack of care, due to funding pressures, can aggravate the situation.

“We’re escalating their behaviours because we’re not giving them the care they need,” she said. “It’s not humanly possible to get all of the tasks done in the time allotted. The change you see in them is unbelievable when you have the time for them.”

The demand for long-term beds will soon increase exponentially due to an aging population.

“We’re facing an epidemic,” she said.

With non-union long-term care facilities paying not much more than minimum wage, increasing workloads, little stability and high compassionate burnout levels are commonplace.

“It’s a very hopeless career option,” she said. “There are not near enough PSWs coming out of programs for the demand we are going to see.”

According to the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), five per cent of Canadians will require the services of a long-term care facility.

“The generation of Canadians looking at our current system for their parents or for themselves in the future are resoundingly telling the government that the system is broken and needs fixing now,” said Wanda Morris, president of CARP. “The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care has been hearing about the system’s failings for years.”

Frail and vulnerable, most long-term care residents cannot speak out for themselves.

“Frail seniors are experiencing a quiet form of discrimination within the health-care system,” Morris said. “The answer lies in advocacy and funding.”

According to Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, the long-term care system in Ontario is unable to provide adequate care and oversight to prevent potential horror stories from happening,

Mehra said long-term care facilities in Ontario are so underfunded it is impossible to provide “necessary care and oversights” to residents.

“Everywhere I go in Ontario, they will tell you they are short staffed. Even with full staffing, there isn’t enough care,” she said.

The Ontario Health Coalition was so concerned about the system it hosted a conference over the weekend of Oct. 28 and Oct. 29 on Reforming Long-Term Care in the Public Interest, featuring several senior advocates and experts on revisioning long-term care.

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