Tiny charity stands up for seniors

TheStar.com – columnists – Tiny charity stands up for seniors
April 28, 2008. Carol Goar

The title seemed too grand at first: “Watchdog for Ontario Nursing Homes.”

Guardian Angels was a tiny charity, run out of Betty Miller’s house in the small Niagara town of Virgil. Its members were ordinary folks whose parents or partners had suffered neglect, humiliation, pain and frustration in long-term care facilities.

Miller wasn’t an expert on nursing home legislation. She didn’t have contacts or influence at Queen’s Park. She’d never set foot in most of Ontario’s 622 nursing homes.

But pushed by fellow board members, she agreed to describe the fledgling organization as a voice for all nursing home residents. Someday, she rationalized, Guardian Angels might become a province-wide network.

That day is still a long way off. But after seven years of fielding anguished phone calls, consulting experts and challenging nursing home administrators, Miller is more convinced than ever that vigilant volunteers are the best defence seniors have against the indignities her mother suffered. And she is more determined than ever to raise public awareness about conditions in these institutions.

The former dental assistant never envisaged herself as an activist. She became one to spare others the ordeal that her family went through.

Like many baby boomers, she visited all the nursing homes in the region when her mother could no longer live independently and picked one that seemed comfortable and well run. “It looked like a lovely place.”

But as her mother’s health declined, she learned how deceptive appearances can be.

She would arrive to find her mother thirsty, upset or in pain. Within months, her mother fell and broke her hip. Because she could not get physiotherapy in the nursing home, she ended up in a wheelchair. Then she developed gangrene, which no one bothered to report to her daughter.

Miller got her mother to the hospital in time to save her leg, but two toes had to be amputated. “The attitude seemed to be, she’s in a wheelchair so it’s not a big deal.”

Things went downhill from there. She’d often find her mother sitting in a soiled diaper that hadn’t been changed for hours. Her spirits were always low.

Two years after entering long-term care, her mother died of an undiagnosed cancer.

After dealing with her grief and guilt, Miller still needed answers: Had she chosen a bad nursing home? Had she expected too much, as her doctor told her? What could she do to protect other vulnerable seniors?

She sent a letter to her local newspaper, the St. Catharines Standard, raising these questions. It triggered a flood of responses. That was how Guardian Angels was born.

It now has 150 members in the Golden Horseshoe, including a few in Toronto (although the city has its own well-established advocacy organization, Concerned Friends of Ontario Citizens in Care Facilities.) Its board includes a geriatrician, a lawyer and communications consultant.

But the core of the charity remains the handful of volunteers who visit nursing homes, counsel families considering long-term care, speak at churches and service clubs and lobby for changes in the system.

“I’m not good at the government stuff,” Miller says frankly.

She can’t explain why the millions of dollars Health Minister George Smitherman has poured into long-term care ($800 million, with an additional $385 million announced in last month’s budget) haven’t resulted in tangible improvements in the lives of residents.

She doesn’t know why some nursing homes provide excellent care and others provide substandard care, when they all receive the same provincial funding per resident.

She’s not sure how to eradicate the ageism that pervades the medical system, the long-term care sector and much of society.

What she does know is something is missing from the political debate: the voice of the 76,000 seniors living in nursing homes.

Guardian Angels can’t speak for all of them. But it is doing its best to ensure they’re not trapped in miserable, helpless silence.

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