Several organizations say past and current government policies demonstrate systemic ageism against the elderly in Ontario health care and are calling on the Human Rights Commission to launch an inquiry.
THUNDER BAY – The Ontario Health Coalition, along with elderly advocates and health care unions are calling on the Ontario Human Rights Commission to launch a public inquiry into what it says has been decades of systemic ageism in Ontario’s health care system.
The Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, the hospital division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly joined the Ontario Health Coalition in the calls for the inquiry during a virtual media conference on Monday.
“As Canadians we like to be proud of our health care system that we want to believe provides equal health care for all but when it comes to the elderly that clearly is not the case,” said Jane Meadus, staff lawyer and institutional advocate with Advocacy Centre for the Elderly.
The key issues raised include hospitals actively discharging seniors into long-term care in order to free up capacity and long-term care homes being unable to meet all the needs of residents.
“During COVID a harsh light has been shone on Ontario’s health care system in its treatment of the elderly,” Meadus said. “Four bed rooms, understaffing, lack of personal protective equipment, and failure to hospitalize residents have all been in the news. However, these are not issues that are specific to COVID-19. Prior to COVID-19 these are all issues we heard about in our office.”
Meadus added that patients are often discharged from hospitals who may require further care or suffer from cognitive or behavioral issues. There are also instances when seniors require publicly funded care but are instead forced into private, for-profit facilities.
“These unsafe discharges are not only allowed to happen they are encouraged by the government,” Meadus said.
Natalie Mehra, director of the Ontario Health Coalition, said the situation in Thunder Bay represents an extreme example of what is taking place across the province.
Mehra said hospital downsizing has been ongoing for more than three decades and provincial governments have rationed access to long-term care.
“We are responding to the conditions that have resulted from this. These are policy choices,” she said. “The planned inadequate care has been a cornerstone of health care policy for more than two decades.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, long-term care facilities suffered ongoing outbreaks of the virus and more than 3,700 people have died.
In Thunder Bay, of the 40 COVID-19 related deaths, 23 were the result of an outbreak at Southbridge Roseview Manor.
“The long-standing terrible inadequacy in long-term care was instrumental in these deaths,” Mehra said.
“So too was the policy denying access to hospital care for the elderly. There is responsibility to be taken at the individual facility level, but there is also systemic ageism in our health care system that treats the elderly as though their lives are less meaningful and this must be challenged.”
According to Mehra, in the early months of the pandemic more than 2,200 elderly individuals across the province designated as alternate level of care patients were discharged from hospital to make room for other patients.
She shared a story from one family who had their mother moved from a hospital into a long-term care home experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19. She was left isolated in her room, not allowed access to her family, was never given the opportunity to go to the hospital, and she died three weeks later.
A University of Toronto Public Health Ontario study found that only 22.4 per cent of long-term care residents with COVID-19 were hospitalized prior to their death, while 81.4 per cent of people living in the community with COVID-19 were hospitalized before their death.
“The older the resident the lower the rate of hospitalization,” Mehra said. “While individual care needs would have precluded hospitalization for some, there is no avoiding the horrible truth that thousands of long-term care residents were left to die, many with terribly inadequate care.”
Conditions within long-term care homes continue to raise concerns as well, with understaffing resulting in residents not receiving the minimum level of care.
At the same time, the wait list for long-term care beds continues to grow, as families need to find care for loved ones who may not be safe at home because care needs are beyond what families can provide.
“In Thunder Bay, there are 842 people on the long-term care waitlist,” Mehra said. “Only 25 beds become available per month. The wait times range up to 1,830 days. That’s five years. Four of the six homes have wait times that are more than 1,000 days.”
Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said Ontario has one of the lowest rates of hospital beds to population in Canada and provincial governments have saved health care costs by cutting back services to the elderly.
“The ugly truth we believe is as the Ontario population grew in age, health care costs were restrained by denying health services to the elderly,” he said. “At no time was this more starkly apparent than during the pandemic. Well before the pandemic, the elderly were turned away, pushed out or deprived access to health care in our province.”
Hurley added that studies have shown that up to 30 per cent of patients discharged from hospital actually require ongoing hospitalization to address acute illnesses, but are pushed out because of their age.
“During the pandemic, this discrimination needlessly killed thousands of people in our direct care by denying them access to hospitalization to preserve hospital beds and critical care units for younger people,” he said.
The organizations are not only calling for an inquiry by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, but also for the provincial government to end discriminatory policies now that directly affect elderly people.
“The pleas for help from the elderly can no longer fall on deaf ears,” Mehra said.