When I think of ‘aging gracefully’, it is not the wrinkle-free skin and perpetual youthfulness that come to mind but living independently and enjoying every day until the final goodbye.
Growing up, I got to see that a lot. Many of the elderly I knew lived on their own managing the best they could and getting occasional help from family, and some moved in with their loved ones when they became too frail.
I lost my grandparents at a young age, but we had many elderly neighbours who were part of our lives.
They had a special place in society and for a good reason: they had the kind of wisdom only a life lived can bestow. There was a measure of balance having them around, which I came to understand much better as an adult.
No one should become disposable once they get older, or be less deserving of dignity and care, which is why we should never reconcile with the abhorrent reality of many of the long-term care homes in Canada, which was recently revealed by the military.
Before the pandemic, there were stories of the elderly being neglected in care homes, mostly related to the media by their family members. Notorious cases got covered for a while, but even those ones drowned eventually in the wave of incoming daily news. The reality of possible abuse and neglect came and went in many episodes but none lead to the end of it.
Then the coronavirus hit and many old people homes were hit the hardest. The military was called to help in Quebec and Ontario and they did, many of them contracting the disease. That is part of the risk soldiers assume under such circumstances, a member of the Canadian military said to me. (Let’s all say an extra thank you on Remembrance Day for that.)
The worst of their mission though was revealed via a most damning report on how the elderly were being treated in some of these long-term care facilities. The soldiers did not hold back from sharing with the rest of us what they saw: flies and cockroaches, improperly trained staff with borderline abusive behaviour, rotten food, residents left for hours in soiled diapers or even lying on the floor. Facts were ugly and shocked everyone.
What now? Well, that was in those provinces, some said. Not really. It could and it likely is happening in all provinces, albeit not in all homes. Still, when such a facility is for-profit, that becomes a business, and businesses are keen on generating a revenue. Unfortunately, that often means cutting corners and reducing expenses. This should not happen when someone’s health or life is at stake.
The question is: now what? Will those responsible do a mea culpa, crocodile tears and all, and then return to the same practices, or will things change for the better? Will they start paying an adequate number of qualified staff decent wages, ensuring benefits, and having proper oversight in place? Will someone be following up on that?
Will we have every such facility in every province inspected by an independent organization that will do exactly what the military did, reporting on what they saw and making it known to the public?
Will the for-profit model change in the light of these reports? We might see a few of these homes taken to court, but that will not address the systemic problem that affects these already vulnerable people.
Perhaps we ought to start by asking ourselves some more fundamental questions: how much are our elderly worth and why would anyone think that once someone is past a certain age, their life is less valuable? We are all headed that way. The way we treat today’s elderly becomes the way we will be treated when we reach that age.
Perhaps we should change some things from the bottom up: make health and chronic disease prevention part of the education at all levels and an important part of our health system. Also, recognize that the health and well-being of people of all ages will take a hit whenever there is money to be made from the opposite.
Yes, we have much work to do. Let’s not let this report become one of the shocking yet forgotten news of the 2020, but the beginning of restoring dignity to our elderly population and to everyone headed that way, which is all of us.