Report paints disturbing picture of challenges faced by aging population

Troy Shantz

Patient-on-patient assaults ignored.

Long-term care home residents waiting hours to use the washroom.

The frail and elderly left home alone after support workers fail to show.

Those and other troubling details are contained in a report released last month by Navigating Senior Care Lambton and Community Legal Assistance Sarnia.

The 20-page report, entitled Hearing Our Voices, was compiled from eight public focus groups held across Sarnia-Lambton to hear first-hand the challenges faced by aging seniors.

It paints a disturbing picture of a senior system plagued with mistreatment, misinformation and inadequate staffing levels.

“It captures exactly what people are talking about,” said Arlene Patterson, a spokesperson with Navigating Senior Care Lambton.

“These things are fixable, and it’s unfortunate we have to shine the results of poor decision-making in order for people in power to rethink those decisions.”

According to family testimonies, elderly patients at the hospital are often treated as a low priority and get substandard care. They also describe blatant “ageism” in emergency departments.

Due to staff shortages, one elderly patient waited a week for a bath, with the family finally hiring a private company to complete the task, according to the report.

A hospital spokesperson said she couldn’t confirm or deny the complaints cited in the anonymous report, but said patient feedback is an important part of Bluewater Health’s commitment to quality.

“We are very open to discussions and would welcome the authors and patients to engage in productive dialogue,” said Julia Oosterman, chief of communications and public affairs.

One family said their mother needed medical attention after being repeatedly assaulted by a roommate at one Lambton long-term care home.

Seniors living at home also deal with inconsistent service from homecare providers, the report found.

Families said workers arrived early, late, or not at all, and according to one agency employee, 1,600 client visits went unfilled in a single week.

One family member described how a relative waited four hours to use a bathroom because the long-term care facility was short-staffed.

Those who work on the front line, including personal support workers, often lack benefits and consistent hours, all but eliminating the incentive to work or stay in one place, the report notes.

When one calls in sick the shift can often go unfilled, forcing working caregivers to stay until a replacement arrives. Those who do stick it out are stretched to the breaking point, Patterson said.

“Burnout is an issue among employees that the employer doesn’t seem to want to address.”

Another recurring theme is poor communication between different agencies and with patients, she added.

Jane Joris, Lambton County’s manager of long-term care, said she didn’t question the validity of the testimonies, but did question the accuracy of claims made about overnight staffing, insufficient fire drills and security cameras.

“I would not want people to think I’m saying that anything in this report was not somebody’s experience, because I suspect it was. I just think there’s a few spots we can add a little bit of information.”

While staff shortages are well documented, the causes are more complicated than the report suggests, she said. Collective agreements, seniority, and vacation time contribute to staffing challenges, she said.

Meanwhile, recently confirmed figures for Lambton’s three long-term care homes indicate a reduction in provincial funding this year over last year, Joris said.

While that won’t negatively impact staffing levels this year it could in 2020, she said.

The county is looking at new ways to retain staff and is experimenting with on-the-job training models and collaboration with Lambton College, which offers a two-year PSW program.

Patterson said the next step is to present the report and its findings to the Local Health Integration Network and Sarnia and Lambton County councils.

“We all need to get into a room and understand what it is that drives (an) organization to make decisions the way it does,” Patterson said.

“The results we’re getting are unacceptable.”