Alberta baby boomers should speak up now or pay later, contributor writes

Alberta government moves towards more private seniors care for baby boomers?
To mark the 2008 International Day of Older Persons on Oct. 1, we suggest that baby boomers think very seriously about what the Alberta government has in store for them as they become seniors.

Dear Editor;

Alberta government moves towards more private seniors care for baby boomers?

To mark the 2008 International Day of Older Persons on Oct. 1, we suggest that baby boomers think very seriously about what the Alberta government has in store for them as they become seniors.

The demographics of an aging population have been known for decades. In 2011, the first of the baby boomers will turn 65. The number of seniors in Alberta is expected to increase by 40 per cent in the next 10 years and will double today’s number in less than 20 years.

This knowledge has in fact been the basis of government action for many years – action to divest itself of responsibility for seniors’ care. Using the specter of supposed un-sustainability, the government has been systematically transferring that responsibility to the private sector and ultimately onto seniors and their families, as the paying consumers of these care services.

Immediately after his swearing-in on Dec. 14, 2006, Premier Stelmach published the priorities that each of his ministers was to address. Among other things, the Minister of Seniors and Community Supports was to “establish a Demographic Planning Commission to provide analysis and proposals to prepare for the needs of an aging population and ensure facilities and supports are available for seniors.”

A full 17 months elapsed before the Commission was established on May 29, 2008. The Commission is chaired by MLA George VanderBurg and consists of seven other members, mostly academics. Despite the long delay in its appointment, the Commission was expected to rush its work over the summer and report its findings by the fall of 2008.

To accomplish this task, the Commission operated a poorly advertised website that closed down on Aug. 31 and held a series of meetings around the province with invited ‘stakeholders’. Invitees were provided a rather superficial discussion paper quantifying the coming ‘tsunami’ of aging baby boomers and focusing on the question of “who should pay”.

After requesting an invitation, I was one of a number of participants who attended the meeting on Monday July 14, at the Capri Centre in Red Deer. Personally, I found the session to be scattered, lacking in focus and far from what could be considered an authentic or effective public consultation. We were never allowed to come to grips with the major shortcomings of Alberta’s current continuing care system, surely a logical starting point for future planning.

For example, consider the critical issue of long-term care for seniors. The standard measure of the availability of long-term care (LTC) facilities is the number of LTC beds per 1000 seniors aged 75 years or older.

Alberta government data show that 20 years ago, Alberta had 105 LTC beds per 1000 seniors age 75 plus but, by 2007, Alberta’s ratio had dropped to 67.3 LTC beds per 1000 seniors age 75 plus. This huge drop has been part of a concerted government effort to download the cost of seniors care onto seniors themselves or their families.

By contrast, a recent article in the Regina Leader-Post reports that the current Canadian average is 96 LTC beds per 1000 seniors age 75 plus, and Saskatchewan has 110 LTC beds per 1000 seniors age 75 plus.

Alberta’s lack of long-term care facilities, along with the inadequacy of homecare to support the government’s “aging in place” strategy, means that many frail and cognitively impaired seniors are stranded at home or in supportive living facilities where care simply is not available or, if it is, it has to be purchased – if you can afford it. When something goes wrong, such as a fall or an infection, the only recourse is to the nearest emergency room and a protracted period in an acute care bed – an infinitely more expensive option.

While the government denies that it is moving to an American-style health care system, it has in fact been moving steadily toward an American-style, private, for-profit seniors care system where costs of $5,000/month are common.

This is a pivotal time for the future of seniors and their families. What Albertans need most is for the commission to look deeply at the current crisis in seniors care and not to prescribe more privatization based on false claims about the un-sustainability of the system.

There is still time for the Commission to get it right, and I would like to suggest the following principles that should guide Alberta’s planning for an aging population policy framework:

1) The basic purpose of our health care system is to provide citizens with necessary medical services, regardless of age, on the basis of need, not ability to pay.

2) For seniors who are physically frail or cognitively impaired, the personal care they require is a medically necessary service.

3) All Alberta seniors have a right to age with dignity, respect and freedom from physical, mental, or financial harm.

4) The dignity and wellbeing of seniors is a concern not just of individuals and their families, but is also a matter of public interest and responsibility.

In light of the government’s inadequate public consultation, Public Interest Alberta and Friends of Medicare hosted eight forums in cities around Alberta. At these forums, we discussed the government claims that the public system is unsustainable, we heard from people about the current crisis in seniors’ care, and looked at ways to advocate that the Alberta government invests now in a public seniors care system so that will be available when today’s boomers need it.

Thank you,

Sam Denhaan

President

Central Alberta Council on Aging

Red Deer, Alta.