What COVID-19 has taught us about caring for our elders

Posted on January 5, 2022 in Child & Family Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors
Jan. 5, 2022.   By Sherri Torjman, Contributor

If COVID has taught us anything, it is to end our sole fixation on nursing homes. 

It is still too soon to reflect on lessons from the trauma inflicted by a raging pandemic. The entire world remains on a steep learning curve and the end of that “learning” is nowhere in sight.

In fact, there may never be an end as we adapt to the reality of life with COVID-19. But there are a few things we do know for sure.

COVID has shone a spotlight on profound global inequalities. There are deep and growing disparities between vaccine have and have-not nations.COVID has been equally devastating when it comes to populations within countries. Here at home, older Canadians, racialized groups and marginalized workers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Right from the get-go, older Canadians were the most vulnerable and hardest hit. They remain on the front lines of this ongoing battle. Nursing homes, in particular, are the ground zero of this viral war.

The neglect of nursing homes was swiftly and correctly branded as our national shame. Multiple investigations and reports documented the shocking deficiencies and called for better infection control, tighter sanitation procedures and improved care.

Though clearly necessary, these reforms are not sufficient. The “what-to-do-about-seniors” discussion always reverts to a singular and narrow focus on better nursing homes. While there are many good homes in the country, this can’t be the only option.

When it comes to older Canadians, there are three missing parts to the post-COVID equation:

Older Canadians are typically lumped together in one group as though all are sick and frail. This characterization is incomplete — and incorrect. In fact, there are two main cohorts that have evolved: “younger” older Canadians and those over age 85. Their interests and support requirements are quite different.

A recent survey by the National Institute on Aging found that almost 100 per cent of Canadians aged 65 and older planned to live in their own home for as long as possible. Yet Canada spends 87 per cent of long-term care dollars on institutionalizing people in nursing homes rather than at-home assistance. Moreover, few options exist for older Canadians between the home alone and institutional care ends of the housing continuum.

There are many successful examples around the world of alternative living arrangements that combine affordability, safety and support. Co-housing, for example, enables small groups to live together in family-style homes where they share costs and care for each other.
Intergenerational housing matches older adults with students, who get free rent in exchange for free care. Dementia villages provide secure environments that allow residents to avoid institutions and move safely within the village.

These models have never been widely embraced in Canada. If anything, there are barriers to creating these alternatives. In some municipalities, for example, co-housing options have faced outdated prohibitions related to concerns about illegal boarding houses and nursing homes. In 2019, an Ontario MPP introduced the Golden Girls Act (now passed in law) to prevent municipalities from barring unrelated people from cohabiting.

Solutions for the future should include intergenerational arrangements. We need each other — emotionally, socially and financially — perhaps more than ever.

If COVID has taught us anything, it is to end our sole fixation on nursing homes. We should instead be nursing better ideas about how to create more caring, supportive and affordable living arrangements for all Canadians.

Sherri Torjman is a policy consultant and former vice-president of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy


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