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Volume Ten, Number Two   March 2005

Quality of Life or Warehousing?            

Carole Pearson                               

Budget cuts to health care by the Gordon Campbell Liberals have hurt BC seniors. Those who were able to stay in their own homes with a little outside help may now have to contemplate institutionalized care. For some already in extended care or multi-level care facilities, quality of life has become a concern.

Last year, the 200 residents at the North Shore Kiwanis Care Centre, an extended care facility, were left without music and recreation programs that were not only therapeutic but brought pleasure into their lives.

“This is people’s home, not a hospital. It’s the last home most of them will have. By losing that component (music and recreation), you’re losing a huge chunk of what we consider to be a good life,” says Maureen Ashfield, Health Sciences Association regional steward, the union representing the therapists.

Since 2003, the Kiwanis Centre has undergone a series of cost-saving changes, including the privatization of food services and housekeeping. Cash-strapped management implemented new schedules that, among other changes, eliminated music therapy altogether and cut the recreation therapist’s hours to two and a half days a week. When the recreation therapist resigned as a result, the vacancy was not posted, much less filled, for months.

Susan Lewis, wife of a Kiwanis Centre patient, told a North Vancouver District council meeting last May, “Music therapy is not an expendable frill.” Calling it an invaluable part of a holistic approach to resident care, she said the cuts“adversely effect the quality of care.”

In the words of a former Kiwanis Centre staffer, “It’s not just about feeding and diapering. It’s about quality of life.”

Most residents at the Centre are in extended care or in the special care unit. They are very frail and have advanced medical problems. Many have dementia or Alzheimer’s and other mental health challenges. Properly administered and evaluated recreation programs have been shown to help improve the alertness and vocabularies of dementia patients. Music therapy improves communication with some late stage dementia patients and is useful in prompting reminiscing. It also provides enjoyment and social interaction.

With the music and recreation therapists no longer available, there was no one to co-ordinate these programs or the volunteers who help run the activities.

BC Health Care Cuts and Caregivers, a report by Friends of Women and Children in BC, an organization of  feminist scholars from post-secondary institutions, says staffing cuts at long-term care facilities and hospitals “force family members to increase their attention to guarantee the basic needs of their loved ones.”

Relatives of Kiwanis Centre residents were distressed over the loss of programming their spouse or parent had once enjoyed. Unable to get satisfaction from the facility’s management, they launched a campaign to get the therapy programs and other health care services restored.  They handed out leaflets, wrote letters to newspapers and officials, signed petitions and lobbied politicians and regional health authority officials.

The issue was presented to the North Vancouver District council by a 12-person delegation, composed primarily of family members.  Ivan Brown, husband of one resident, told Council, “I asked if and when cuts became necessary, the music and recreation therapy be untouched. They are the only factors that provide quality of life.”

In response, Council passed a motion to write to Premier Campbell and the Health Minister about the anecdotal reports of the “deterioration in care levels at the Centre.” Citing the loss or curtailment of activity programs and the large turnover in staff which ‘seriously jeopardized’ continuity and quality of care, they questioned whether the Centre had been given enough money to fulfill its mandate.

The health ministry responded with a letter reiterating the role of the regional health authorities for funding allocation. But more money did become available and by late last year, a recreation therapist had been hired and the music therapy position restored to three days a week. There remain concerns over inadequate staffing levels and the dietician has yet to have her hours fully restored, despite increasing numbers of patients with allergies, diabetes and eating difficulties.  Still, it was a significant victory thanks to the efforts of family members, staff, residents and municipal politicians.

Unfortunately, not every senior has advocates to fight on their behalf. Many seniors without this support may find quality of life only a distant memory unless more funding becomes available to restore services for all.

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