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Older Persons Day a time to push for change

Posted: September 28, 2017

(September 28, 2017)

By Natalie Mehra, Executive Director

In May, The Hamilton Spectator reported that for the first time in Hamilton and Ontario, seniors outnumber children. In fact, in Hamilton, Burlington and Grimsby almost one in every five people is 65 or older. Hamilton is slightly greyer than the rest of Ontario and the proportion of seniors here is significantly higher than in Toronto, according to census data from Statistics Canada.

‎The International Day of Older Persons today is an opportunity to highlight the important contribution of older people and to raise awareness about the issues and challenges of aging in our society. For many elderly persons, one of those key issues is health care.

That is certainly the case for Nancy (name changed to protect her privacy), a retired teacher who lives in Hamilton. Her husband was recently diagnosed with dementia in addition to an array of serious health problems. At the same time as she has been cast into profound grief, she has been pressured relentlessly to move her husband out of the hospital. She has been pressed to place him in settings that are not appropriate and where she fears for his safety, or to take him home. A strong woman, she cries when she describes what is happening, the pain and the stress are so raw and overwhelming. ‎She is not alone.

Driving by St. Joseph’s hospital in Hamilton, one can see a lineup of ambulances waiting to off-load their patients. Too often, those off-load delays are dangerous, taking many of the community’s ambulances off the road for hours at a time. They are caused by hospital overcrowding, which is epidemic across Ontario. Here, HHS and St. Joe’s are running regularly at more than 100 per cent capacity, meaning that the hospitals are completely full. Since the beds in the hospital wards are all taken, the emergency departments get backlogged. Patients have to wait on stretchers until beds open up. Ambulances can’t off-load because the emergency department is full. Surgeries get cancelled because there are no available recovery beds. Hospital staff must turn their focus to pushing patients out — ever quicker and sicker — to clear out beds for more patients to come in.

‎For elderly people and their families, these conditions have become inhumane. Waits, sometimes for days, under bright lights with no privacy on stretchers in hospital hallways, should not be the “new normal.” Coercing patients out of hospital when they need care and compassion is cruel. Hospital cuts have gone too far, and hospital overcrowding must be considered the crisis in care that it really is.

‎ It is a crisis that can be reversed. Ontario has cut more hospital beds than any other province in Canada. In fact, our province ranks at the bottom of all our peers in the number of hospital beds per person, hospital funding, and in the amount of nursing care per patient. Not surprisingly, we have an extremely high hospital readmission rate. Nearly 1 in 10 patients ends up back in hospital after being discharged.

The comparative numbers are staggering. Only Turkey, Chile and Mexico, according to OECD figures, have fewer hospital beds per person than Ontario. All of our peer countries in Europe have far more beds. That every other jurisdiction has more hospital capacity than we do underlines the fact that the cuts in Ontario are a result of policy choices, not necessities. At its core, this is privatization — closing down public capacity in our local hospitals, shifting care to individuals to pay for themselves. For elderly people it is causing grave suffering.

The elderly of today were the generation that founded public medicare in Canada — a tremendous achievement that has improved the lives of Canadians. And the elderly of today have contributed to paying for the public health care system all their lives in their taxes. It is simply wrong that when they need it the most, it is being taken away.

We are inviting Hamilton and area residents to join us at the International Day of Older Persons event at the Hamilton city council chambers this Friday (Sept. 29) at 11 a.m. to discuss these issues. All are welcome to join in this important free event and discussion.

Natalie Mehra is executive director, Ontario Health Coalition. Rolf Gerstenberger is president of the Hamilton Health Coalition []. Janina LeBon is with the Hamilton Health Coalition