The tragedy that is being played out in long-term care facilities (LTCFs) across Canada and around the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic comes as no surprise to elder care advocates such as myself.
We have seen the rampant neglect and abuse in LTCFs worldwide, and some of us have been advocating for change for decades. I have been writing this blog for six years, and have documented my own mother’s neglect and abuse including finding her in soiled incontinence briefs (about which I wrote an open letter to Quebec’s then minister of health Gaetan Barrette), being sedated into a comatose state for close to four years, being physically restrained, and more.
Elder care advocates are not alone in knowing about the dire situation in LTC around the world. Care workers know about it, nursing home managers and administrators know about it, and some family members of the neglected and abused know about it too. Elder neglect and abuse in LTCFs have been pervasive for years, and that’s why we’re seeing so many deaths in LTCFs during this pandemic.
Don’t be fooled by what the politicians and government officials are saying now. They would want you to believe that this crisis situation is the result of COVID-19. It’s not. It’s the result of the systemic failure that has been ongoing for a very long time. In Canada, it’s also the result of healthcare officials and politicians not listening to advocates’ warnings about what would happen when COVID-19 reached our country.
Because of the pandemic and the disproportionate toll it’s taking on people living in so-called “care” facilities, the general public is learning the truth: the system sucks.
What everyone also needs to know is the system sucked long before COVID-19 came calling. Here’s what advocates says about the situation in Quebec (the situation is similar across Canada, the US and the UK):
Elder care advocates worldwide have long been fighting for person-centred care that engages people and helps them to live rich and full lives until the end. Research shows this type of care is essential to the well being of older people, particularly those living with dementia. Treating our elders in any other way is criminal, as we are now seeing clearly as they die in their thousands worldwide from COVID-19.
Meanwhile, those responsible point fingers at each other to avoid “holding the bag” as in the case of the Herron “home” in Quebec, Canada.
Here are some of the factors that allow institutional neglect and abuse to continue:
1 ) Ageism & stigma
Ageist views remain widespread (e.g. old people are useless; their lives don’t matter; our job is to warehouse them, not engage them with life). These unhappy myths negatively impact the way we care for elderly people who live in their own homes, in our communities and most particularly in LTCFs.
Many people don’t understand the realities of aging and aged care. Some of the erroneous beliefs include: it doesn’t matter how we treat old people; they don’t know what’s happening; they’re going to die soon anyway; and they are expendable. For example, one member of parliament is said to have implied that since old people in nursing homes are the primary victims of COVID-19, that we should go ahead and re-start the economy.
2 ) Lack of awareness
For the most part, the general public simply does not understand the generally poor conditions that exist in long-term care facilities. Even people who have a family members living in LTCF may not fully understand the conditions under which residents live because they believe what they are told by care workers, administrators and the government. I know from having visited my mother every day for four years that things are rarely what they appear to be. It’s true that some facilities provide good care, but my sense from ongoing research is that they are the exception rather than the rule.
3 ) Poor leadership
Senior executives and medical professionals who manage LTCFs, as well as government policy makers who are responsible in large part for most of the factors that follow and for the neglect and abuse that result. Being willing to take a hard look at what has been wrong and what is wrong with failing eldercare systems takes courage. Identifying shortcomings and fixing them is a gargantuan task that requires vision, will, energy and commitment. If those kinds of people had been in leadership positions before and were in leadership positions now, we wouldn’t find ourselves with the existing situation: broken facilities full of infected workers and dying residents.
4 ) Lack of training/understanding
The standard of care in any given facility is only as good as the frontline workers who deliver it. Care workers require specialized training and understanding; if they don’t have the skills they need, neglect and abuse are inevitable. Frontline care staff need the encouragement and support of competent, compassionate, visionary leaders to get the job done.
5 ) Low staff-to-resident ratios
How can one care worker attend to the needs of eight to ten or even more residents and do it to a reasonable standard? It’s not possible. And yet, those are the kinds of care worker to resident ratios that prevail in most LTCFs. It’s no wonder neglect and abuse are pervasive. The situation has reached a crisis level with the COVID-19 pandemic.
6 ) Warehouse-like environments
There have been recent innovations in design including dementia villages, small group homes, and facilities in which childcare and eldercare are combined. While these approaches have proven successful, organizations that apply them are still relatively few and far between. Most facilities are not designed to meet resident needs, but rather to maximize operational efficiency. Calling a warehouse a “village,” a “manor,” or a “specialized memory care unit,” does not change the essence of what it is.
7 ) Dis-incentivized workers
Care workers tend to be poorly trained and poorly paid, and overworked because of low staff-to-resident ratios; they are often ill treated, and unappreciated. Many are given part-time work at any given facility, and must therefore work at several facilities to make ends meet, a fact that has contributed to the rapid spread of outbreaks in nursing homes across Canada.
8 ) Uncaring cultures
All of the factors above lead to UNcare cultures in which profit comes first, people come last and the status quo is never questioned, or, if and when it is, complainers and whistleblowers are quickly silenced, dismissed, or disavowed. Staff become demoralized, complacent, cynical and hardened to preserve their own sanity. Negative UNcare cultures that have become entrenched are hard to change.
9 ) Ineffective “policing”
Regulatory bodies may be stretched beyond capacity. Substandard operations/practices may be difficult to identify because of the way inspections are done (e.g. prior notice of visits results in things being “spit and polish” for inspecting eyes), and offending institutions may remain open and operating despite substandard performance and long lists of regulation breaches and/or regulatory infractions.
10 ) The bottom line
Cost-saving, cost-cutting, and the pursuit of profit are deemed more important than providing vulnerable elders with the care they need and deserve. Residents and families are powerless to change the system to which they have fallen victim.
It’s time to take a closer look at this tragic and completely unacceptable state of affairs, demand research into the nature and prevalence of neglect and abuse in long-term care, and most important, to immediately implement action plans to stop it. Class action suits such as these are a step in the right direction.
Perhaps this pandemic will finally open people’s eyes to the horrors of long-term “care” in Canada and around the world. But oh what a heavy price to pay for the potential of change!
Image copyright: warrengoldswain / 123RF Stock Photo