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Shoot me now

May 27, 2020

Okay, don’t shoot me yet, but when the time comes, please just shoot me.

When you hear the term “battlefield report” for some reason you expect it to be from a, you know, battlefield – somewhere far away where a war that has nothing in common with life on the home front is raging. You don’t expect it to be about life on the home front for thousands and thousands of vulnerable people. But that is what has been revealed in reports about the “battlefield” conditions experienced by Canadian military personnel who have been deployed in Ontario and Quebec long term care homes.

The contents of these reports are damning and absolutely heartbreaking. They should also be shocking, but sadly they aren’t.

In April 2008 I flew from London to Vancouver to visit my friend and former partner Mike who was in hospital recovering from femur replacement surgery. The surgery was necessary because the femur in his left leg was in bits, riddled with cancer, which was also attacking other parts of his body. He was completely immobile and it was obvious that there was no way he could be released from the hospital to return to his Vancouver apartment, let alone our home here on the island. To help out him (and his kids), I spent some of my vacation time checking out various care homes in Vancouver. There were some very pleasant, very expensive options. Unfortunately, because at that particular point the only way to get him out of bed was with a mechanical hoist, none of these facilities were able or willing to consider him as a resident. The other options were just awful. In one, the stench was so bad I didn’t even make it to the office for my appointment. I just turned and, gagging as I went, fled. It was clear the hospital wanted Mike’s bed freed up. Eventually they agreed to keep him in until he was able to transfer himself from his bed to his wheelchair, at which point he was able to move into a perfectly pleasant assisted living building, with his own small, self contained flat, with activities and meals provided and two managers who were also trained nurses. It was a nice enough place to be until later in the year when I returned in order to get him back to the island.

But I can still remember the stench of that one facility and the vacant despair on the faces of residents in other facilities I visited. Although I only had a glimpse of these places, nothing in the armed forces reports surprises me – not the cockroaches or the patients left, sometimes for days, in soiled diapers or the patient who died of choking, being force fed whilst lying on his back.

It is absolutely sickening. We do not honour and care for our elders, we park them. Sometimes we are simply not able to provide the care needed, as is the case for patients suffering from the worst ravages of dementia. (It took a kitchen fire which could have killed them both for Mike’s dad to finally agree that his wife of more than fifty years would be safer and better off in a home.) But far too often we just can’t be bothered. I don’t just mean in Canada. In Britain and the United States and most other western countries, this pandemic has shone a glaring spotlight on the scandalous inadequacies of “care” in far too many long term facilities.

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How did Canadian soldiers end up working in Quebec and Ontario care homes? This is how. (Read it and weep.)

I don’t blame the care workers. The vast majority of them are caring people who are overworked, underpaid and under valued. In a profit-driven industry that often ensures staff are kept under the number of weekly hours that would require providing them with extra benefits, how can these (often immigrant) women and men earn enough money to feed their families without taking multiple jobs in multiple homes?

Ontario premier Doug Ford’s impersonation this week of Captain Renault’s “shock” was the height of hypocrisy. It was his penny-pinching government that put an end to inspectors making unannounced visits to Ontario care homes. Would surprise inspections have prevented the ravages of Covid-19 in Ontario nursing homes? Probably not. But they could have improved the daily, non-pandemic lives of the residents.

In Canada, the UK, the US and elsewhere, politicians (with the notable exception of the empathy-free US president) and pundits are all saying this is a lesson that must be learnt from the pandemic. Action must be taken to help our elders. Conditions must be improved. Training and wages for care workers must be increased.

Will any of this happen if we ever get to the other side of this pandemic? God, I hope so. But I’m not holding my breath.

From → Columns

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