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Family members caring for elders left to clean up the mess of a failing health care system

Canadians shouldn’t fear growing old. Nor should they fear the treatment they’ll receive when they reach their elderly years.  

Yet, we’ve heard from seniors, caregivers, nurses, and doctors that the services currently available in our country are not sufficient for this demographic. 

Our hospitals and community care facilities are running at full capacity and we lack the resources to manage the influx of patients. In Ontario specifically, the number of staff per bed falls far below the national average. 

The pitfalls in our system are not only being felt by patients but by the family members who are care for them as well. This causes a ripple effect throughout our society at large.

A 2012 Conference Board of Canada study estimates that caregiving employees represent a cost to employers in lost productivity of $1.28 billion a year.

Joni Campbell knows the effects of a failing system all too well. She was an informal caregiver to her father for almost a year before he passed away in November 2014. Every day, Campbell would travel an hour to visit him because there was no other option for her family. She retired early in order to care for him.

She describes him as “a proud, independent, small businessman who worked hard every day of his life.” This is in part why it was so difficult for Campbell to watch him wither away, without a speck of dignity left.

A particular memory sticks out for her while her father was living in a nursing home in Ottawa. At this point, he was in a wheelchair, had emphysema and severe dementia.

On his second day there, Campbell was in his room when he told her he needed to have a bowel movement. She saw a nurse standing at the nearest nursing station and asked if she’d help. Instead, Campbell was told to use the room buzzer.

She rang, but no one came. She rang again, no help. Finally, a support worker placed him on the toilet but left shortly thereafter. Her dad said he was going to faint, so she rang again—still, no help. 

Campbell sat holding her dad on the toilet with tears streaming down her face.

It was downhill from there.

 “Basically my dad starved to death in the four months he was at the nursing home,” she said. “I felt like I put my dad in a prison.”

Despite the poor care her father received, Campbell doesn’t blame herself or the nursing home. Instead, she blames the entire system: the lack of staff, the extensive wait times for nursing home placement, the lack of funding for seniors care initiatives in communities, and the inadequate support for family caregivers.

Ralph Scandiffio shares the same sentiment. As a retired family physician, Scandiffio knows how to navigate the health care system. Yet, his years of practice couldn’t prepare him for his next role in life: primary caregiver to his wife Eileen, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

Scandiffio is vocal about his experiences looking after his wife 24 hours a day and the strain it put on his own mental wellbeing.

“I said, ‘I’m the weak link here, if there’s anyone that’s going to give out it’s me.’”

He relied on day programs for assistance and some degree of relief. When he reached out to the Champlain Community Care Access Centre in Ottawa for added home care support, they weren’t able to provide the necessary resources. 

After years of living at home, Eileen was finally admitted to St. Patrick’s Home, a long-term care facility in Ottawa, through the “crisis application.”

“I cannot say that she was the crisis, the crisis was the caregiver,” he says. “I was fragile and vulnerable because I was afraid things weren’t going right and things were going to fall apart.”

Unfortunately, these stories aren’t unique. More than ever before, Canadians across the country have had to assume the role of primary caregiver for their aging loved ones—a role that can be unbelievably challenging and demanding but one that doesn’t earn you a lofty salary or a gold badge of honor. 

By ignoring the complex and chronic needs of seniors, we are putting informal caregivers at high risk for personal burnout and we are denying patients the care they deserve.


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