Public policy neglects safety of our seniors


The Globe and Mail

Published Saturday, Jan. 25 2014, 6:00 AM EST

Last updated Saturday, Jan. 25 2014, 6:00 AM EST


A fire rages, and your mom is in the middle of it, alone, trying to find her glasses and her walker in the dark, scared, and desperately praying for you to come save her.

Anyone who has ever had a loved one in institutional care has woken up in a cold sweat from that nightmare, one that became horrifically real for dozens of families this week in Isle-Verte, Que.

In response to that disaster, there will be much talk of fire safety, and the importance of sprinklers in particular.

That is an important discussion to have, but it should lead to a much broader reflection on how, in an aging society, we care for our elders and, in particular, how we ensure the safety and dignity of the 400,000 seniors living in so-called “care facilities.” La Résidence du Havre – where eight are confirmed dead and 30 are not accounted for – did not have a sprinkler system in all parts of the building. It also had only two staff on overnight overseeing all the residents.

In light of what happened – dozens of people with limited mobility, dementia and other serious health issues who had no real chance of escaping a fire – that seems outrageous.

It is also the norm.

Barely half of the elder-care facilities in Quebec have sprinkler systems, and it is not much different elsewhere in the country. There are no mandatory staff-to-patient ratios either. The home did not have a registry, which is why the exact number missing is not known.

The words “patchwork” and “bureaucracy” are being used a lot to describe the regulatory environment. “Contemptuous” would be more precise.

There is a national fire code – it says sprinklers should be mandatory in every institutional residence – but most provinces have not made that recommendation law. And even the jurisdictions that have mandated the installation of sprinklers have grandfather clauses (a particularly egregious expression in this instance) for existing facilities and lag times of up to a decade for retrofitting.

It is cold comfort to know that granny’s old-age home will finally be fitted with 20th-century safety equipment some time before 2025.

The deaths in Isle-Verte, and other deaths in similar circumstances but on a smaller scale (13 dead in six nursing home fires since 2009) amount to a massacre by public-policy neglect.

And, unless urgent action is taken, the carnage will continue.

A cursory glance at the demographics of elder-care facilities underscores just how vulnerable this population is and how essential fire-mitigation measures are to their safety.

Only 1.6 per cent of people 65-70 years old live in seniors’ facilities; by age 80, it’s 30 per cent, at age 90, it’s 48 per cent, and 66 per cent of people over 100 live in facilities. This is not a mobile population. They have no chance in a fire – unless the fire is put out quickly.

In the United States, sprinklers are mandatory in every nursing home, long-term-care facility and residence for seniors or people with disabilities.

Why? Because lawsuits forced the hand of legislators and institution owners. In the United States, when there are preventable tragedies like Isle-Verte, litigation against companies and the state forces immediate change.

In Canada, we hold earnest public inquiries and then do nothing. Multiple coroners’ inquests have looked at fires in institutional settings, and they have been recommending smoke alarms and sprinklers for at least three decades.

This inertia is sadly typical of almost all policy planning related to our aging society.

We have known for more than half a century that the post-war baby boom was going to result in a much older society in the future and, as the years passed, it became abundantly clear that one of the biggest societal challenges would be how to house and care for them.

But what have we done in preparation?

Aside from moaning about how boomers are going to bankrupt the health system, very little.

We have not re-engineered our cities to make them more senior-friendly, we have not modified our labour policies to make caring for our parents and grandparents financially viable, and we have not created a decent home-care network.

We have instead adopted a de facto policy of mass institutionalization – with eight per cent of seniors already warehoused and that number soaring. If that were not enough, many of these institutions have questionable staffing policies and dubious safety standards.

Why does it take an atrocious fire to get us even to start to talk about this situation? And what will it take to actually spur action?

It is no wonder we have nightmares.

Seniors housing co-op proposed for Calgary

With support from the City of Calgary, a group of Calgarians are planning to build a seniors housing co-operative to meet the demands of the city’s rapidly aging population.

Calgary has 16 housing co-ops but this initiative would be the city’s first 55-plus specific residence and its proponents say if the concept is successful, the model could be duplicated across the province, and the country.

“I anticipate several of these in the next five to 10 years in Calgary specifically and in (other) large urban centres,” said Gary Ellis, one of the members of the group.

The group of a dozen people has found land they can purchase in northwest Calgary for the 30 to 39-unit two-to-three-storey project, dubbed the Beacon Housing Initiative, and they’re in the process of meeting with financial institutions to secure funds for the project.

From the colour of the paint on the walls to the lighting, the units at the Beacon Housing Initiative, would be designed with seniors in mind.

Unlike co-housing, members of housing co-ops do not own equity in their homes. In a housing co-op, residents are members of the co-op and pay a fee to live there. If they move, their home is returned to the co-op. Co-operative housing typically involves a strong sense of community, a common room and shared amenities, resources and equipment.

The group behind the Beacon Housing Initiative has been meeting regularly for more than a year discussing seniors and housing issues in Calgary, often sitting around a large table at Calgary’s Prairie Sky Cohousing Cooperative.

Sarah Arthurs lives at Prairie Sky, an 18-unit all-ages residential development in Calgary that is a hybrid of the co-operative model and co-housing, and she has been instrumental in connecting members of the Beacon Housing Initiative together.

“The appeal for me about the co-operative model is it’s about individuals getting together and saying, ‘this is a problem, how can we fix it together,’ ” Arthurs said.

Older adults are overwhelmingly the fastest growing segment of Calgary’s population and by the early 2030s, it’s expected for the first time in history, Calgary will be home to more seniors than children.

A seniors housing co-op would address a number of issues, including affordable housing in a city with an extremely low vacancy rate, the desire for some seniors to downsize yet remain independent, and a need to keep seniors mentally engaged and connected, Arthurs said.

“There is going to be a large need for places for seniors to live that are connected, smaller and not out in the boonies where they can’t get the services they need,” she said.

The group believes the co-op’s younger seniors could help out the older ones, and the community connections could prevent social isolation and keep seniors healthy.

The Beacon Housing Initiative group has applied for up to $20,000 in seed funding from the British Columbia Co-operative Association (BCCA).

Through a project known as the Co-operative Elder Care Project, the organization is working to apply co-operative principles to the world of seniors and to fund pilot projects in some partner Canadian provinces including Alberta.

Kevin Harding, director of Co-op Development at the BCCA, said there’s a thriving housing co-op sector in B.C., including a few senior-specific housing co-ops.

The co-op model is a different way of doing things that creates community and makes sense when it comes to Canada’s increasing aging population, said Harding.

“There soon will be more people who are older or approaching senior status — it’s becoming more and more pressing to find ways to house, to support, to care for seniors,” he said.

Ellis believes if the concept has worked in B.C., it’s worth a try in Alberta. Whether or not the group receives the startup funding, they’re committed to move ahead with the project and make it a reality in Calgary within the next few years, he said.

Housing older adults is an issue City of Calgary staff are also keen to address, and they welcome the concept of seniors-only housing co-operatives.

Derek Cook is executive director of the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative, a joint project between the City of Calgary and the United Way. The initiative has developed and is implementing a poverty reduction strategy, which includes co-ops.

“One of the important aspects of co-ops and one of the reasons we believe in them strongly is that they’re built on community. It’s not just housing. You provide housing and community at the same time,” Cook said.

Cook supports the Beacon Housing Initiative and believes local housing co-ops could be the way of the future, especially when it comes to reducing poverty.

“One of the important basic needs that people face is housing … The development of co-operative housing provides a model for providing that more affordable housing option for people and particularly for seniors. I think it’s a good model,” Cook said.

The city is also in the process of developing a Seniors Age Friendly Strategy and housing will be a part of the initiative.

Raynell McDonough, a social worker with the City of Calgary’s Community and Neighbourhood Services, said a diversity of options when it comes to housing Calgary’s seniors is important and housing co-ops could be one of many options that are included in the Age Friendly Strategy.

Co-operative housing is a good option for older adults because it “creates that environment that encourages social connections, increased sense of community and strengthens those informal supports,” McDonough said.

Those are some of the reasons why real estate consultant Molly McDonald supports the Beacon Housing initiative.

McDonald is a member of the group organizing the project and the former realtor said she’s seen first-hand how limited living options for seniors are, specifically those who don’t have thousands of dollars a month for rent at a retirement facility.

The 65-year-old said she can see herself living in the seniors co-op, which would provide aging boomers opportunities to stay mentally active through involvement in the co-op’s governance, and emotionally connected through relationships with their neighbours.

“It’s all about community,” she said.

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

Group proposes seniors-only housing co-op in Calgary