As president of Réseau FADOQ, the country’s biggest seniors organization, I unfortunately have to start this open letter by referring a reality we can’t avoid: The members of the generation who built modern-day Quebec are at this very moment dying horrifically in our province’s CHSLDs and private seniors residences.
And it is not without a certain bitterness that I make the following observation: They are victims—collateral damage—of a long-term care system that we knew was a failure long before the current health crisis. COVID-19, which spread like wildfire through seniors residences, merely aggravated the numerous problems that had been there for far too long already.
Start with staff‑to‑patient ratios: It will come as no surprise to you to discover that Quebec has been short of healthcare staff for years now. Healthcare workers pay a heavy price, running themselves ragged to keep the system going. The courage and dedication of these dauntless workers is deeply moving—they strive to do whatever they can to ensure that each patient receives at least a minimum of decent care, despite the staff shortages. But these tenacious overachievers can’t do it alone.
For years, Réseau FADOQ has been calling for the ratios to be updated. How long? For ten years, Réseau FADOQ has been fighting to get governments to take real action and eliminate the scourge of elder abuse, an issue closely linked to problematic ratios. We’ve been involved in numerous consultations on housing and long-term care, making numerous recommendations, but the Government of Quebec has done little. And the problems haven’t gone away.
As recently as March 10—three days before the first lockdown measures were announced—our organization was criticizing the provincial budget for its failure to tackle the issue of staff-to-patient ratios. We expressed our disappointment at the government’s failure to respond to promising results from pilot projects set up in 2018: projects so successful that they were all extended past their original termination dates. Premier François Legault seems to have acknowledged the problem with his April 7 announcement that help was on its way in the form of additional nurses and doctors being assigned to CHSLDs and seniors residences. It was a step in the right direction, albeit slow in coming.
Réseau FADOQ hopes to see this newfound awareness extended to the organization of work throughout the healthcare system. Hospital and facility administrators have shown that days without mandatory overtime are possible, and that they really can improve how work is organized in order to make it more humane and responsive to the needs of the public.
We know that the Government of Quebec wants to protect seniors at all costs. Its sincerity is shown by the actions and the lockdown measures it has put in place. Réseau FADOQ hopes that when the crisis is over, authorities will be more sensitive to the issues associated with Quebec’s rapidly aging population. More sensitive and ready to act. The tragedy many older people are going through shows that we need to fight the latent ageism currently blinding the political class to the issues impacting seniors.
The federal government needs to do something before it’s too late and we’re forced once again to respond to problems instead of preventing them. Réseau FADOQ therefore calls for an increase in the Canada Health Transfer (CHT). Otherwise the federal share of public healthcare spending will fall below 20% by 2026.
Financial worries among older people
Réseau FADOQ is not only concerned about the precarious physical health of many older people, but their precarious finances as well. The storm that COVID-19 has stirred up will leave behind an economic crisis with dramatic effects on the financial situation of older people, particularly those who are most vulnerable.
The federal government claims to have lifted 73,000 seniors out of poverty. The reality however is that Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement recipients have barely $18,000 a year to live on. What’s the government waiting for to make good on its promise to increase Old Age Security benefits by 10%? With stock markets plunging, what’s the government waiting for to cancel mandatory withdrawals from Registered Retirement Income Funds (RRIFs)? Couldn’t we push the mandatory age for converting Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) into RRIFs to 75?
And what will the Government of Canada do about business bankruptcies that result in scores of pension plans being terminated? What will happen to the workers and retirees who lose income because of underfunded plans? Réseau FADOQ stresses the importance of better protection for pension plans. It’s important that pension funds be given the status of priority claims. The Government of Quebec can also protect workers and retirees by setting up a pension insurance plan right away. Our organization hopes that Quebec’s finance minister will show greater openness to this issue.
“The bitter lessons of the past must ever be learned anew,” said Albert Einstein. But the way things are going, our elders can’t afford to wait for yet another lesson.