Overdue protection for the unprotected [retirement homes]

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions/Editorial – Half the country has unregulated retirement homes. Legislation is key to protecting seniors
Published on Feb. 24, 2010. Last updated on Feb. 26, 2010.

When seniors need a nursing-home bed and none is available, they often settle for a retirement residence. These range from rundown houses to hotel-like suites. Half the country has unregulated retirement homes, and some are run by rogue operators, putting the elderly at risk.

The difference between nursing homes and retirement homes is stark, even though those who reside in them can be very similar. Long-term-care homes make nursing care and supervision available 24 hours a day and are regulated. Retirement homes provide minimal to moderate support and answer to no one.

Even hospitals – keen to free up beds for surgery and emergency patients – are experimenting with them. Earlier this month, Ontario’s chief coroner partly attributed the death of a 92-year-old Ottawa woman to inadequate care she received in a retirement home. She had been transferred there from hospital.

It’s a welcome move, then, that Ontario is planning to regulate retirement homes, which have about 41,000 beds. In doing so, it will be joining five other provinces – Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and Saskatchewan – in an effort to bring uniform quality to a worrying industry.

Ontario said the proposed legislation will require retirement homes to meet minimum safety and care standards. Homes would be required to assess new residents and describe what services they provide. There will be a resident’s bill of rights.

Gerry Phillips, Ontario’s minister responsible for seniors, says the upcoming legislation, expected to be tabled this spring, will help protect the vulnerable. For example, residents would be moved into a higher-care setting as their health deteriorates.

It’s legislation that has been a long time coming: advocates, seniors and politicians have been pushing for laws and regulations for years.

“It doesn’t serve the interests of good quality operators to have a few bad actors in the sector,” said Gord White, chief executive officer for Ontario Retirement Communities Association, a non-profit organization that accredits retirement homes. “It increases risks for residents and for their families.”

Currently, any worker in a retirement home can dole out medications. They can feed residents microwave meals. They do not have to meet any minimum requirements for care. Fortunately, some retirement homes have joined Mr. White’s organization, which sets standards, but it is voluntary. Others have not.

For years, retirement homes have become a dumping ground for seniors and served as a stop-gap for hospitals trying to manage finite health resources.

If society is to be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable, then it has far more work to do;  several provinces allow these homes to warehouse the elderly without any rules. With a silver tsunami on its way, legislation is key to protecting seniors.

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