The year of the pandemic has busted the myth that Canada values its seniors

Decades of promises to improve the quality of life of elderly Canadians have gone unfulfilled. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the ugly truth.
Funeral home workers remove a body from the Centre d'hébergement de Sainte-Dorothée in Laval, Que., in April 2020 (Ryan Remiorz/CP)
Funeral home workers remove a body from the Centre d’hebergement Ste-Dorothee Monday April 13, 2020 in Laval, Que. As the deadly toll of COVID-19 on Canada’s nursing homes gives rise to a growing number of proposed class-action lawsuits, some legal experts say the cases will turn on what’s considered reasonable care during a pandemic. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

This has been a year of realizing that what we thought was solid ground beneath our collective feet was in fact a cliff that would crumble away with just a bit of natural erosion or one sharp blow. We reflected on 2020 to find truths, exploded. This is one of them. Read more about the year that changed everything »

“You are a waste of space,” a nurse told 88-year-old Mary Wilton in the summer of 2019 after the octogenarian, who suffers from Parkinson’s, vomited while receiving care in a hospital near Toronto.

Today, Wilton’s daughter Alison cries as she talks about the day her mother phoned to tell her about the encounter. She calls it one of many examples of age discrimination that her mother has faced over the last decade as her health worsened. The ageism comes not only in the form of callous comments but as unaffordable housing, insufficient home care, wait lists for long-term care and a lack of support for family caregivers—all of which existed prior to the pandemic but worsened over 2020, says Wilton. “People say, ‘Well, they’re old anyway.’ ”

For decades, one Canadian government after another has made promises to Canada’s older adults to increase their access to support and improve the quality of their lives. In 2004, Ontario’s minister of health and long-term care, George Smitherman, said: “We need to change the culture of long-term care in this province.” In 2014, Canada’s minister of state for seniors, Alice Wong, said: “The government of Canada is committed to ensuring a high quality of life for seniors.” In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “We’re making sure [seniors] have the support they need.”

OUR EDITORIAL: Looking at truths, exploded

But the reality of 2020 is that Canada’s seniors are suffering disproportionately, and it’s because these promises have gone unfulfilled. The proof is in the pandemic numbers: by the summer, over 80 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in Canada occurred in nursing and retirement home settings—nearly twice the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, even though Canada’s total COVID-19 mortality rate was comparatively lower. The degree of devastation became too large for staff at these homes to manage. In the first wave of COVID, the military was called into long-term care homes in Quebec; in the second, the Canadian Red Cross was summoned into some Ontario homes. In Manitoba, Minister of Health Cameron Friesen told CBC News that deaths in personal care homes are “tragic” but “unavoidable.” In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney noted this spring that many people dying from COVID had already surpassed their life expectancy.

Dr. Amina Jabbar, a geriatrician in Toronto who is completing a Ph.D. in health policy at McMaster University in Hamilton, says Canada has a history of underfunding and under-regulating care for seniors. “It’s incredibly fascinating, but also really depressing to look at how bad the state of long-term care has been, literally, for decades.” Even before the pandemic, over 40,000 Canadians were on wait lists for a place in a nursing home while another 430,000 reported having unmet home care needs, according to the National Institute on Aging. Many lack the funds to pay out of pocket for care: in 2016, 14.5 per cent of older Canadians lived in low-income households, according to census data from Statistics Canada.

Jabbar regularly visits her patients in their homes because they’re too sick to come to her clinic. Often they have too few publicly funded services to help them age in place safely and months-long waiting lists to get into a nursing home, she says. “It seems grossly inequitable to me that, in a country like Canada, the decision to stay at home and to age at home ultimately ends up being about how much you’ve been able to save.”

Many Canadians don’t know how desperate the situation is for the country’s elder citizens, says Dr. Vivian Stamatopoulos, a teaching professor at Ontario Tech University who specializes in family caregiving. “People don’t want to think about the elderly because it’s sad,” she says. Or they don’t think about older adults at all because they just don’t see them. Seniors are often isolated from the general population because our communities are not designed to be age-friendly.

“I think a lot of people are just unaware of how bad it is [for Canadian seniors],” says Stamatopoulos. “But do I think our governments and politicians know? Absolutely.”

14 things 2020 proved wrong

‘Democracy is destiny’

The worst system except for all the others has been under attack for years. Trump just made us notice.

‘The future is virtual’

The pandemic has made it clear in more ways than we would have thought to count: you actually need to be there

‘Rich countries can overcome’

The awful response to the pandemic put the final nail in the myth of liberal democracy’s pre-eminence

‘In a crisis, leaders will lead’

The job description is right in their title, but too many simply failed to show up for work

‘Women are winning at work’

The economic crisis spurred by the pandemic has unveiled inequalities and obstacles once thought a thing of the past

‘The individual is supreme’

Our decades-long love affair with rugged independence has suddenly fallen away

‘The stock market has meaning’

Long treated as a key economic indicator by many, it is now completely detached from how the economy is actually doing

‘Climate change can’t be stopped’

After decades of planet-threatening growth, emissions fell off a cliff. Environmentalists sense a turning point.

‘We value our seniors’

Decades of promises to improve the quality of life of elderly Canadians have gone unfulfilled

‘Kids are resilient’

Children’s ability to bounce back has been pushed to a breaking point, and exposed some ugly inequalities

‘Running errands is boring’

Rushing out to get milk was once the height of tedium. Today, it’s an anxiety-inducing thrill ride.

‘We need the gym’

The pandemic shutdown forced a reality check: for many, all that time spent in the gym was more luxury than necessity

‘Bureaucracy is slow’

The pandemic forced a culture shift on government, proving that red tape really can be cut

‘You can ignore racism’

Denying systemic racism is no longer tenable. But will the outrage of the past summer translate to substantive change?