It took the coronavirus pandemic to open our eyes to the deplorable state of so many of the nation's long-term care homes: the inhumane conditions, overworked and underpaid staff, and lack of oversight. In this timely new book, esteemed health reporter André Picard reveals the full extent of the crisis in eldercare, and offers an urgently needed prescription to fix a broken system.
When COVID-19 spread through seniors' residences across Canada, the impact was horrific. Along with widespread illness and a devastating death toll, the situation exposed a decades-old crisis: the shocking systemic neglect towards our elders.
Called in to provide emergency care in some of the hardest-hit facilities in Ontario and Quebec, the military issued damning reports of what they encountered. And yet, the failings that were exposed--unappetizing meals, infrequent baths, overmedication, physical abuse and inadequate personal care--have persisted for years in these institutions.
In Neglected No More, André Picard takes a hard look at how we came to embrace mass institutionalization, and lays out what can and must be done to improve the state of care for our elders, a highly vulnerable population with complex needs and little ability to advocate for themselves.
Picard shows that the entire eldercare system--fragmented, underfunded and unsupported--is long overdue for a fundamental rethink. We need to find ways to ensure seniors can age gracefully in the community for longer, with supportive home care and respite for family caregivers, and ensure that long-term care homes are not warehouses of isolation and neglect. Our elders deserve nothing less.
About the author
André Picard is the health columnist at The Globe and Mail and one of Canada’s top public policy writers. He is also the author of the best-selling books THE PATH TO HEALTH CARE REFORM: Policies and Politics, CRITICAL CARE: Canadian Nurses Speak For Change; The Gift of Death: Confronting Canada’s Tainted Blood Tragedy and; A CALL TO ALMS: The New Face of Charity in Canada. His latest book is MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH: Public Health Issues in Canada.
André has received much acclaim for his writing, including the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service Journalism, the Canadian Policy Research Award, and the Atkinson Fellowship for Public Policy Research. In 2002, he received the Centennial Prize of the Pan-American Health Organization as the top public health reporter in the Americas. In 2005, he was named Canada’s first Public Health Hero by the Canadian Public Health Association, and in 2007 he was honoured as a Champion of Mental Health. His advocacy work has been honoured by a number of consumer health groups, including Safe Kids Canada, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and the Canadian Hearing Society.
Excerpt: Neglected No More: The Urgent Need to Improve the Lives of Canada's Elders in the Wake of a Pandemic (by (author) André Picard)
When eldercare makes headlines in Canada, it’s usually news of the worst kind.
On June 26, 2017, former nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer was sentenced to life in prison for murdering eight vulnerable elders in care homes where she worked in southwestern Ontario. The inquiry that followed concluded that, had she not confessed, Wettlaufer would never have been caught.
Just after midnight on January 23, 2014, a blaze broke out in the kitchen of the Résidence du Havre nursing home in L’Isle-Verte, Quebec. Thanks to a lack of sprinklers, the absence of staff to help frail residents escape and the inept emergency response that followed, thirty-two residents suffered horrific deaths. No one was ever charged.
On January 20, 2019, 93-year-old Hélène Rowley Hotte, the mother of former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, left her seniors’ residence in response to a (false) fire alarm, without anyone on staff noticing. The emergency exit door locked behind her. That night the temperature in Montreal dipped to minus-21 degrees Celsius, and Hélène Rowley Hotte froze to death. A coroner’s inquest ruled the death was preventable but accidental. No one was charged.
Then came Covid-19.
As the novel coronavirus slithered into unprepared long-term-care homes, elders were no longer dying one at a time, or even by the dozens, but by the hundreds and thousands. Those deaths too were largely preventable. You can bet your lunch that no individual or organization will be held to account for the mass death of vulnerable seniors.
Eldercare in this country is so disorganized and so poorly regulated, the staffing so inadequate, the infrastructure so outdated, the accountability so non-existent and ageism so rampant, there seems to be no limit to what care homes can get away with.
Of course, there will be the obligatory inquiry. When a gross societal failure occurs, you can always count on Canadian politicians to embrace obfuscation and foot-dragging in lieu of action. In her 1,491-page report, Madam Justice Eileen Gillese, the Ontario Court of Appeal judge who presided over the Public Inquiry into the Safety and Security of Residents in the Long-Term Care Homes System (the Wettlaufer inquiry), said the reason a killer can run amok, undetected, is “systemic vulnerabilities.” She concluded that “assigning blame to individuals or organizations is counterproductive.”
That’s pretty much the conclusion of every coroner’s report, judicial inquiry and investigation that has ever been conducted into failings such as those cited above. And, remember, those cases are just the tip of the iceberg, the spectacular failures that generate media attention and political hand-wringing, not the everyday neglect that is deadly too. Yet the “systemic vulnerabilities” that are exposed time and time again never seem to get corrected. In Canadian health care, it seems, no screw-up, no matter how big or small, how sickening or deadly, is ever anyone’s fault. It’s always the fault of “the system.”
So let’s fix the damn system.
Neglected No More isn’t a book about Covid-19, except peripherally. It’s a plea to stop dehumanizing elders, and to reimagine long-term care (LTC). It tells of families frustrated by their inability to access the care their loved ones want, the angst of dedicated workers who don’t have the time or resources to deliver the care elders want and need, and how a combination of history, changing demographics, political inertia and a health system with other priorities created a proverbial perfect storm that allowed a pathogen to ravage a vulnerable population.
It’s not a call for heads to roll that will never roll. It’s a stark exposé of what’s wrong and a rough blueprint for what we need to do to fix eldercare.
When I first wrote about AIDS in 1981, the acronym had yet to be coined; the strange new illness, which seemed to affect only gay men, was dubbed GRID—gay-related immune deficiency. In the four decades since, AIDS has become, arguably, the most deadly pandemic in human history. At least 36 million people have died of AIDS, and another 40 million are still living with HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. (Of course, nothing compares to the Black Death. The bubonic plague killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people between 1346 and 1353. But that was long before the advent of medicine or public health measures such as sanitation and clean water.)
AIDS has not only described the arc of my career in journalism, it has spawned in me a long-standing interest in pathogens more broadly: the viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites, worms and prions that have been the scourge of humanity since the dawn of time. I have written about all manner of infectious micro-organisms, from the obscurely rare to those that casually kill millions a year, everything from sleeping sickness to tuberculosis, chicken pox to Ebola, polio to influenza.
Outbreaks rarely generate much media attention. The exception was Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). In 2003, SARS-CoV killed forty-four Canadians, devastated the economy and exposed gaping holes in our public health infrastructure. It was a dress rehearsal for a real pandemic.
The formal name for the pandemic virus that causes Covid-19 is SARS-CoV-2. When it arrived in our midst, someone (I wish I could remember who) said, “You’ve been training for this moment your whole life.” That’s true. For me, infectious diseases are fascinating not because of their biology, but because they almost always have wide-ranging social, economic and political implications.
We are only beginning to get a sense of the earth-shattering fallout from Covid-19. In Canada, the pandemic has, among other things, exposed the fault lines in our institutions—political, public health, judicial and more. But no sector has been more brutally unmasked than eldercare, the hodgepodge of long-term-care homes, home care and affordable housing for seniors that lurks on the margins of health and welfare systems. We have long deluded ourselves into thinking our elders were well cared for. Now the norm has been shown to be horribly inadequate. We have been forced to confront the fact that the old way of doing things—dispatching our elders to live in holding-on-by-a-shoestring nursing homes—is not working.
AIDS forced journalists to write about all manner of issues that were largely taboo until then: homophobia, intravenous drug use, sex work, institutionalized misogyny and more. It made us confront uncomfortable socio-economic realities such as how poverty, marginalization and disempowerment are pathogens’ best friends. Covid-19 is reminding us that we need to relearn many of those lessons.
It is hard to imagine a population that has been more profoundly neglected for an extended period than elders. The responses to the sickening incidents cited at the outset of this introduction exposed multiple “systemic vulnerabilities”—the treatment of elders as disposable, understaffing, poor regulation and a total absence of accountability—that were never corrected. If anything, they grew worse. That set the stage for what happened in care facilities during Covid-19: thousands upon thousands of deaths, most of which were preventable.
What is perhaps most shocking is how little was done to raise the ramparts around nursing homes. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of infectious diseases would know that frail seniors living in congregate settings are sitting ducks for pathogens, especially respiratory viruses. As soon as the word “pandemic” was uttered, alarm bells should have gone off and protective measures put in place.
That elders were at high risk was no secret. By February 2020, there was extensive coverage describing how coronavirus was hitting seniors particularly hard in China and in Europe, and warning that this phenomenon could soon hit North America. Among people over the age of 80 who had contracted coronavirus, the death rate was 22 percent; in those aged 70 to 80, it was 8 percent.
The headline on a column I wrote in the March 8 edition of the Globe and Mail—before a single nursing home death had occurred—read: SENIOR CARE FACILITIES ARE ESPECIALLY VULNERABLE TO COVID-19 OUTBREAKS. Not long after that, I wrote another column saying “if you can get your relatives out of seniors’ homes, try to do it as fast as you can.” That commentary triggered many angry responses, but, in retrospect, my only regret is not having said it sooner.
It would take almost two months before politicians officially acknowledged the severity of the long-term-care crisis, by calling in the troops, literally. Canadian Forces health specialists were deployed to the hardest-hit homes in late April 2020. By then, thousands had already died. Quebec, the hardest-hit province by far, created “SWAT teams” to dispatch to care homes in October 2020, but did so only after a second round of deaths in institutional care was well under way.
The way elders died—almost always alone, their family caregivers locked out, without palliative care, and often with little care at all—was the greatest horror of all. Nihilism reared its head in our public policy response, an underlying ageist “they’re going to die anyhow” attitude. The proponents of “herd immunity”—let the coronavirus run rampant and if vulnerable elders die en masse, too bad, that’s the price of getting the economy running at full steam—openly reflected this crude philosophy.
There are those who will be looking for villains—politicians, care home operators, workers who walked off the job. But the real villain in this tragedy is society’s profound and long-standing neglect of elders. A reckoning is in order.
“[E]veryone who may have elders to care for, and/or may end up as an elder in need of care themselves—which is to say, everyone—should read this book, and press our governments to heed Picard’s warnings and wise advice.” —Montreal Review of Books
“Neglected No More is a powerful, well-researched, eloquently written book that dives deep into why and how Canada fails its elders.” —Forbes
“[A] compelling case for transforming how society cares for older people.” —The Lancet
“Picard . . . is odds-on Canada’s premier health-care journalist. His columns in the Globe and Mail are intelligent, incisive and frequently revelatory. So is this book.” —Winnipeg Free Press
"Neglected No More should be an essential part of the national debate we urgently need to be having right now, whether or not we agree with all of its conclusions.” —Literary Review of Canada
“All [of Picard’s] suggestions make sense. We should all hope and demand that he’ll be heeded. . . . Highly recommended.” —Vancouver Sun
Praise for Matters of Life and Death: Public Health Issues in Canada:
“Over the past 30 years, André Picard has become the most prominent Canadian commentator on the intersection between medicine and social values. His new book, Matters of Life and Death, a selection of some of his most powerful columns written for The Globe and Mail, further establishes his unique voice in discussions about Canadian health-care policy. . . . The extent of Picard’s influence has accrued because he stands outside medicine and the academy—he has no formal training in health care. This allows him a skepticism and clear-sightedness that has made him an indispensable medical writer.” —The Globe and Mail
“If ill-informed health policy debates are part of the problem, this new book from journalist André Picard is an important part of the solution. Matters of Life and Death distills Picard’s 30 years of experience covering the health policy beat into a bracing dose of fact and analysis. And his elegant voice as a prose stylist is the spoonful of sugar that makes even his more alarming and discouraging passages go down smoothly. . . . This is a remarkable and useful book, rich with anecdotes, facts and statistics and often providing thoughtful suggestions for the big-picture reforms that the author believes would improve Canadian health service.” —Vancouver Sun
“We all need to read Matters of Life and Death, reflect on it, generate conversations, and take action for change. Without such conversations and changes, our health system is not sustainable. Thank you, André Picard, for giving us your columns to start these conversations.” —Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership