Senior Care Still Falls Short in Alberta

Alberta Seniors department budget has been cut from $116 million in 2014-15 to $102 million in 2015-16

By Janice Curtis, CEOCalgary Meals on Wheels
Lawrence Braul, CEOTrinity Place Foundation

CALGARY, Alta./ Troy Media/ – The Alberta NDP government’s first budget was a disappointment for the province’s fastest growing demographic – seniors.

Seniors now make up about 10 per cent of Alberta’s population and by 2041 it is estimated that number will double to 20 per cent. So the pressure on the government to serve this demographic will only grow.

First the good news. Spending on provisions for drugs ($558 million), dental, vision and supplementary health benefits ($122 million total) was increased for older adults in the budget, which was presented in October. However, it is not known if these increases represent new funding or just a re-allocation of funds.

Homecare will also be expanded, with a new model to be phased in in 2017-18. Details about the model are thin but the intent is to keep older adults in their homes as long as possible.

Aging in place is a good goal, but it can lead to undiagnosed physical and mental health issues, as well as social isolation.

Aging in community – where seniors can participate and contribute to the communities they live in, whether private dwellings or communal seniors housing – is much better.

The NDP also announced long-awaited expansion to long-term senior care spaces, creating 2,000 new spaces, with attached operating funding. But we don’t just need more spaces, we also need better quality and consistent standards between facilities.

A recent survey released by the Health Quality Council of Alberta on family experiences of long-term care providers reported no significant change in overall ratings from 2010 to 2014-15 for 94.8 per cent of the facilities, while the rest experienced a decrease. Families recommended more staff, better food, better cleanliness and upkeep, and better access to other health-care services. With a province-wide average rating of 8.3 out of 10, there is still room for improvement.

And there are other areas in senior care that need attention.

If the province also invested more in preventive supports and services, such as programs on falls prevention and better medication reviews and monitoring, costly, unnecessary and inappropriate trips to hospital emergency rooms could be reduced

When it comes to other seniors housing, the picture is mixed. Dementia spaces will increasingly be a priority in the province as the seniors population grows, along with much-needed long-term care spaces. Hopefully, the government will also make keeping married couples together a priority. Couples are currently being split up when one needs acute dementia care and the stories of separation are heartbreaking.

While it is encouraging that the province sees the need for investment in older facilities, some of these may be better repurposed or even rebuilt as they are coming to the end of their natural lifecycle. An aging population living in aging buildings is not a recipe for quality of life.

The fact that the Affordable Supportive Living Initiative (ASLI) program will no longer be funded after 2014-15 is also worrying. It’s true that the Alberta Social Housing Corp. received a big boost in capital spending to $168 million from $88 million, with $78 million of that earmarked for seniors housing. But it’s still unknown what mix of senior care housing (independent or supportive living, private or non-profit) will receive funding.

The budget does include funding for a mental health strategy, as well as an addictions strategy, which is an excellent move forward. However, mental health issues for the older adult population can be extremely complex and can be tied to housing. If older adults with mental illness and/or addictions live in communal settings, their housing can be put at risk without proper and specialized treatment. The government must ensure that older adults are included in both strategies.

While more money is going into seniors-related budgets in other government departments, the sad reality is that the total Alberta Seniors department budget will decrease from $116 million in 2014-15 to $102 million in 2015-16, and go lower still in 2017-18. This is not reflective of the needs of this growing population group.

There are certainly some good things in the the first NDP budget with respect to seniors. However, this government must accomplish more in order to provide the growing population of Alberta seniors with a comfortable, safe and affordable future.

Janice Curtis is CEO of Calgary Meals on Wheels. Lawrence Braul is the CEO of Trinity Place Foundation. Both sit as members of the steering committee of the Older Adult Council of Calgary. 

© 2015 Distributed by Troy Media