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Territory racing to catch up with needs of an aging population

John Soderberg's 92-year-old mother lives independently in a two-bedroom apartment in southern Ontario.

The building is home to other residents around her age. Across the street is a facility that provides seniors who need it more comprehensive, long-term care.

“My mom looks across there and is happy she's at home, but knows that if she needs that kind of care... it's there,” Soderberg, president of the Yellowknife Seniors' Society, said Monday.

“The services that are provided there are very good.”

Sidney Cohen/NNSL photo
A group of seniors gathered on Monday for coffee and to enjoy each other's company at the Baker Community Centre on the Avens campus in Yellowknife.
Jan. 29, 2018

In Yellowknife, the Avens seniors' community offers long-term care, dementia care and independent living.

Residents living in one of the 32 independent units can join a meal plan and participate in activities, but otherwise look after themselves.

Nursing and personal care is available in Aven Manor, the long-term care unit that has 31 beds, one of which is a respite bed.

Soderberg said he is aware of residents who have moved out of an independent unit on the site and into long-term care.

Securing a spot at Avens or another seniors' facility in the territory however, is another matter.

Health and Social Services manages wait lists for placements in long-term care in the Northwest Territories. Beds are offered based on need.

Damien Healy, spokesperson for Health and Social Services, wrote in a Jan. 24 email that the average wait time for a bed in Yellowknife in 2016-17 was 163 days. For a dementia care bed in the city, the wait time was 198 days.

In NWT as a whole, the median wait time for a long-term care bed last fiscal year was 58 days.

“As part of the (GNWT's continuing care) action plan, we are investing in improving home and community care services and caregiver supports to enable seniors and elders to live in their own homes for as long as possible,” wrote Healy.

According to the NWT Bureau of Statistics, people age 60 and older are the fastest growing age group in the territory.

Between 2016 and 2035, the 60-plus set is expected to expand by 80 per cent.

By 2026, the government of Northwest Territories estimates the territory will be short 258 long-term beds.

In preparation, the GNWT is taking steps toward accommodating and caring for its aging population.

This fall, the department of Health and Social Services announced that a 72-bed, long-term care facility will be built at the site of the old Stanton hospital. Plans are in the works for a similar, 48-bed facility in Hay River, and the GNWT will study the potential 28 long-term beds in Fort Simpson.

“We know that today there are elders who are waiting for a spot in one of our long-term care facilities, and that these lists will continue to grow,” Glen Abernethy, the minister of Health and Social Services, told the legislative assembly on Sept. 20.  

“We must take action.”

Soderberg said the government has taken a “big step” by simply adding seniors to its list of priorities.

While the addition of new long-term care beds is a positive development, he said, there must equal, if not greater, attention paid to the quality of care that will go along with those beds.

“The real key is providing sensitive service,” he said, of large-scale continuing care facilities. The right caregivers can make a big seniors' home feel small.

“We've heard too many horror cases across the country of what happens in private facilities,” said Soderberg.

“In the North, maintaining a publicly-run system would probably reduce the chances of that kind of abuse, but still, we need the trained people.”

Barb Hood, executive director of the NWT Seniors' Society, is calling for a more immediate solution to meet the housing and care needs of the territory's older adults.

“There are new facilities coming online, but there are also people who have been waiting for some time, and during that wait, their conditions may have deteriorated and they're in critical need now of these beds,” Hood said in an interview Monday.

Hood also noted that long term-beds must be spread across the territory, so that people can be cared for in their language, near their families and in their home communities.

“I personally am not in favour of ghettoizing any particular age group,” said Hood, referring to the concentration of seniors care in large facilities.

“I don't want to see a hospital-like facility where there aren't enough services and people are just left in rooms or hallways without any stimulation, without anythings to do or purpose in life.”

In Hood's view, the promise of new long-term care beds is too little, too late.

Governments have known for decades that aging baby-boomers would create immense pressure on the continuing care system.

She said more education and prevention could have allowed older adults to stay at home longer and not have to move into costly long-term care facilities.

“Many older adults have contributed hugely to our society and have made society better,” she said.

“We need to ... truly value people who are in those older generations now, and the system needs to pull on that knowledge and strength.”