Grey Matters: Mistreatment and abuse of patients in long-term care homes is anything but rare

Wanda Morris, Postmedia News | May 16, 2017 12:41 PM ET

It was over 3 decades ago, but I still remember the elegant surroundings I saw when I stepped out of the car: the freshly clipped lawn, the stone façade, the oak door. It was the first day of an audit at a long-term-care facility. I’d come equipped with my briefcase, working papers and calculator. But nothing prepared me for what I’d find inside.
When I opened the door, I was greeted by the smell of bleach, of institutional food, of despair.

To reach the accountant’s office, I walked past people sitting in wheelchairs who reached out, trying to catch my attention. I walked past people in rooms, calling out from their beds. And I walked past a nursing station where staff talked and laughed, seemingly oblivious to the misery around them.

Every day I walked down that hall; every night I went home and wept. It may be 30 years later, but the problems remain.

In February, of this year, James Acker, a high-functioning dementia patient, was cruelly beaten by another resident in his long-term-care facility, St. Joseph’s Villa in Hamilton, Ontario. His injuries were so severe he died from them.

Last year, Elizabeth Wettlaufer, a nurse from Woodstock, Ontario was charged with the murder of eight seniors. She was alleged to have ended the lives of care home residents with staff and family being none the wiser.

While these are extreme incidents, mistreatment of patients in care homes is anything but rare. Across the country staff put patients in diapers because toileting requires too much time, nurses ‘forget’ to give pain medication to residents that complain, and fragile seniors are co-housed with individuals who are aggressive or even violent. The result is hardly surprising: every year, over 1,000 patients in long-term care facilities are abused, physically harmed by aggression or neglect.

There are a number of factors contributing to this abuse, and sadly, they look to get worse rather than better. Canada’s population is aging; there are now more Canadians 65 and over than under age 15

Dementia is highly correlated with age, so dementia sufferers are also on the rise with no prospects for relief in sight. Despite billions invested in research, Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, remains a disease whose cause is unknown and for which there is no cure. Provincial investments in long-term care infrastructure and staffing have not kept pace with increased needs, and the needs of long-term-care residents have become increasingly complex. The Ontario Long-Term-Care Association (OLTCA) estimates that 90% of long-term-care residents have some type of cognitive impairment, with more than two-thirds of those being dementia-related. The OLTCA statistics reveal a 12% increase in dementia patients in care in six years.

There is no straightforward solution. Problems in care homes arise from causes that can be geographically distinct. Increased dementia often results in greatly increased demands but staffing levels haven’t been adjusted accordingly; outdated facility designs agitate rather than calm residents; long waiting lists for beds leave governments unwilling to close down problematic facilities; not all staff have proper training, particularly when it comes to supporting residents with dementia, and some private homes cut corners to profit at residents’ expense. Still, if we decide as a society that these conditions are unacceptable, we could change them. At the moment, it appears we’re prepared to live with the warehousing of our elderly and infirm.

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Article originally posted on The National Post – Click here to view article.

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