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Commentary: Action Needed A National Seniors Strategy

By: Dr. Dharm Singh

Imagine working your whole life - contributing to your community, to your province, and your family. When you become a senior, you need a bit more help in return.

What if the health system - which you supported with your taxes and depended on your entire life - is not able to care for you in the way you'd like, just when you need it most?

In Restigouche, as in the rest of the province, a stressed health care system is already a reality. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Northern New Brunswick has the most senior population in the province. Nineteen per cent of people in our region are 65 and older, a number which will double by 2036. The group aged 45-64 represents 36 per cent of our population and most of us are involved with caring for our ageing parents, relatives and friends.

Nationwide, the demographics are similar. There are approximately 5.2 million seniors in Canada. Our senior population is going to double in the next twenty years, while our population aged 85 and over is going to quadruple.

Seniors' health care needs cost a large proportion of our tax dollars, accounting for half of all health and social care spending.

Seniors care issues are also resonating with Canadians, as reflected in a recent Ipsos Reid public opinion poll which revealed that 83 per cent of Canadians were concerned about their health care during their retirement years.

None of these numbers are surprising. We've been talking about them for a while. At the turn of the 20th century, the life expectancy in Canada was 51. Today it is 81. The population is ageing, health budgets are increasing, and at the core of this is a health system that doesn't meet the needs of our ageing population. An example of that can be seen in most hospitals in the province, including our own. Fixing seniors care is a challenge but also an opportunity. We have a chance to overhaul the whole health care system so it can effectively serve today's population.

Around 15 per cent of hospital beds in Canada are taken by people who no longer need hospital care, but have nowhere else to go. These are referred as Alternative Level of Care (ALC) cases. The number is higher in our own region and even higher provincially, at 25 per cent.

These seniors may need a spot in a long-term care centre, or they may need to be set up for home care. But because of the way our system is structured, they wait in hospital beds. These hospital beds cost upwards of $1,000 per day. A long-term care bed costs around $130 per day, and homecare costs around $55 per day. It is estimated that moving ALC patients from hospitals to long term care facilities will save the health care system around $2.3 billion a year.

There is a lot of opportunity here - if we care for these seniors in the way they want to be treated with better care rather than leaving them in hospitals, we have an opportunity to make health care more sustainable.

Although health care delivery is primarily a provincial/territorial responsibility, the federal government also has important policies, programs and funding. Restigouche physicians recently met with our local Member of Parliament, the Hon. Bernard Valcourt, to ask him and all politicians to work with doctors on a National Seniors Strategy.

We want all political parties to include the need for a National Seniors Strategy in their election platforms in advance of this fall's election. This would help us care for seniors with the dignity and respect they deserve in the twilight of their lives.

Doctors are a solution-oriented group. People come to us looking for help, for advice, and for action. We have lots of ideas for what this strategy could include - a strategy to improve our mix of services, like nursing home beds, home care, and assisted living spaces.

We need to do more to make home care an attractive field to be in. There is a need for seamless access to seniors' health care services, which allows smooth and quick transition from ALC to home care, nursing home care, palliative care and other long term care services.

And we need leadership from federal politicians to get started on this right away, from whoever ends up in power in October. Although federal government has made a start by providing a family caregiver tax credit and funding support for palliative care training, much more needs to be done.

Restigouche physicians are part of a larger effort by the New Brunswick Medical Society and Canadian Medical Association to get this on the agenda for discussion in our community, in our hospitals, and yes, in the federal legislature.

I encourage everyone to visit our website at demandaplan.ca and think about the kind of care we need for seniors today and in the years to come.

Dr Dharm Singh is a urologist in Campbellton and the President of the Restigouche District Medical Society. This article originally appeared in The Telegragh-Journal on Jun 18, 2015: https://www.telegraphjournal.com/tribune/story/42748818/