Patient advocates key to navigating health system, forum hears

Troy Shantz

Sarnia’s Kathy Ptaszynski worked 42 years as a nurse, but it was only after she started caring for her elderly mother that she noticed cracks in the local health-care system.

“I can speak to both sides, because I’ve recently had experiences in a long-term care home that if I wasn’t an advocate, my mother would’ve been in big trouble,” she said.

Ptaszynski was one of seven presenters at a public forum held in Sarnia last week designed to get a snapshot of senior care in the community and provide answers to questions.

She said she became suspicious last year about the medications being prescribed for her mother, 86, who was then still living independently.

Ptaszynski believes the drugs contributed to a fall her mother took and a broken hip that went undiagnosed for months.

Then she had to grapple with medication issues at the long-term care home her mother was admitted to, she told the forum organized by Community Legal Assistance Sarnia and Navigating Senior Care Lambton.

Only after she became a strong advocate (the ‘squeaky wheel’) for more effective pain medication did her mom get the attention she needed, she said.

“We have overworked PSWs in nursing homes who are giving up,” she said, noting 10 of 15 new hires at the home have already quit. “It’s almost like a warehousing situation.”

Stories like Ptaszynski’s are not uncommon and need to be told, said Jane Meadus, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly and panel member facilitating the meeting.

“I think that most people think they’re doing this alone, that they’re the only ones this is happening to,” she said.

“We have to use it as a catalyst for change as well. It’s clear the system is so broken that we really need to fix it.”

A common theme during the discussion was the need for someone to help families navigate a complex health system, especially those requiring in-home and long-term care options.

What people need are advocates to guide them, said Andrew Bolter, executive director of Community Legal Assistance Sarnia.

“If every community had that, it would solve a lot of issues.”

Ptaszynski’s nursing background and networks within the system proved helpful for her mother, but many people don’t have that luxury, she said.

She hopes one day a knowledgeable advocate will be available for every family that needs one.

“We don’t have a third-party navigator built into our health system available to these people,” she said, “someone who can see, assess and give direction to people on where they need to be.”