The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear the disparity of care for residents in long-term care compared to that in hospitals. An indicator of that disparity is the fact that 80 per cent of COVID-19 deaths have been in long-term care homes so far.
I’m avoiding the label of “the elderly” for these residents for reasons I’ll explain later.
The reduced long-term care is not for lack of dedication by workers but for political reasons. Barb Nederpel, President of Hospital Employees’ Union, told me:
“The pandemic has brought the problems in how we treat seniors and those who care for them into sharp focus. Twenty years ago, workers in long-term care earned the same wages and benefits regardless of their employer. Through privatization and contracting out, the BC Liberals forced thousands of these workers into lower paid jobs. Many took second or third jobs to make ends meet. To keep seniors and workers safe during the pandemic, public health officials are limiting workers to single sites and we’ve secured agreement from government to increase those wages back to the industry standard.”
For ideological motives, the BC Liberals argued that private care facilities could operate more efficiently. Privatization created a multi-tiered system where those who could pay more got better treatment.
The trouble with this model is that in this market where there is a labour shortage, workers will go to where they are paid more -leaving places that pay less short-staffed. The residents who call those places home suffer.
Ageism is at the heart of deaths in long-term care homes. The reduction in worker wages reflects the degree that we care about the residents of those facilities. The death of “the elderly” is seen as no big deal. People get old and die. The meme “Boomer Remover” that has been circulating reflects the dark humour of ageism.
To dismiss residents as “the elderly” robs them of their dignity as fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, brothers and sisters. Let’s call them persons; persons who love and are loved, who laugh and cry, and make a difference in the world. Age should be just one aspect of anyone’s life, not a defining attribute.
Hospitals are relatively well-prepared for the pandemic in contrast to long-term care homes says Rona Ambrose, former Conservative minister of health and minister during the Ebola crisis in 2014:
“Our hospitals are ready. Doctors and nurses have been properly trained and are waiting to be called in for COVID-19 duty. Personal protective equipment is available, and, if not, it’s on its way.
“Meanwhile, caregivers in many long-term care homes are underpaid, lack training and don’t have PPE. How could this have happened when we knew from day one that long-term care homes would be centres of COVID-19 infection? How could we have failed our care-home residents so badly? There are hundreds of these facilities dealing with outbreaks across Canada (Globe and Mail, April 13, 2020).”
Post-pandemic, we will need to reset our values so that workers’ wages coincide with the value that we place on them. It’s too bad that it takes a pandemic for that disconnect to sink in. There has been an outpouring of appreciation for workers who have put their lives on the line to serve us. Let’s back up that appreciation for long-term care workers with a living wage.