Seniors in crisis in Kawartha Lakes: Group calls on Mayor, MPP to help fill in the gaps
He’s got a makeshift wood stove in a dilapidated trailer outside of town. She’s hoarding junk and debris — so much in fact that the doors to her home no longer open and parts of her floor are sagging. Another man burns flammable liquids to stay warm during the cold clutch of winter. In her postcard-perfect home, another woman constantly calls police to investigate phantom intruders.
This is but a snapshot of a growing number of seniors who are in danger in our community. They’re all over age 60 and most have lost at least some of their cognitive abilities. These are men and women who are not necessarily defined by poverty or rural postal codes. In fact, many of them live in nice homes in Lindsay or elsewhere in Kawartha Lakes and may be quite well off.
But they are all defined by one thing – that there isn’t any program or service in Kawartha Lakes set up to help them, a weakness in in the social fabric of our City.
In nearby Haliburton, Muskoka, or Northumberland County, programs and policies have been set up to help in cases like this.
“The absolute vulnerability of these people in a wealthy, western nation like Canada where social services are in place is shocking,” says Bella Alderton, program director for Women’s Resources.
Shocking, but true. Scores of seniors with some level of cognitive impairment across Kawartha Lakes are at risk of grave injury or death because there are no services for people like them. Their situations are also generally characterized by a lack of connectedness to family or community. More than a third of the City of Kawartha Lakes’ population is 60 or over, according to 2016 Statistics Canada numbers.
In some cases family members have tried to help but have failed, due to the ongoing effort that is required with people who have dementia or some kind of cognitive challenge. In other cases the person is estranged from family or simply has no relatives to draw support from.
“These are not seniors who are asking for help,” says Sheila Carron, a mental health nurse at Ross Memorial Hospital, and that’s the fundamental challenge. If they are not asking for help due to underlying conditions like dementia, then they are falling through the cracks of the system.
For instance, the hospital can only help if there is an immediate medical condition. If a senior obviously needs ongoing medical attention on a regular basis, or needs help with day-to-day things like banking and prescription filling, then acute care is not the place for that senior.
Long-term care and retirement homes are not the solution. As well, these homes can refuse admission to people even if they only have a single issue – such as wandering tendencies.
The Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) can give a senior a certain amount of time for post-operative care, “but if you need to help to get to the doctor, to fill out paperwork, do some banking,” or other important tasks, there’s no one to step in, says Carron.
“There are counties that have better services in these cases,” says Alderton, “if there is not a responsible adult in that person’s life.”
Carron also works with Sergeant Dave Murtha of the Kawartha Lakes Police Service two days a week for the Community Response Unit. (She also works with the OPP in this capacity.) This is a partnership between the police services and Ross Memorial Hospital to help those who are frequently ending up in the hospital or the justice system.
The response unit saw 71 cases in 2017 of seniors (60 and over) who were in crisis of some kind. That number jumped to 77 seniors in 2018 – and that’s just up until Oct. 1.
Murtha says over the last year an increasing number of calls for officers are checks on the well-being of seniors, such as the ones described above. Often the call comes from a neighbour who notices “unusual behaviour,” Murtha says. This could include sitting in an idling car for longer periods of time, wandering around their yard aimlessly, or some of the scenarios described earlier.
The sergeant says there were five calls for police service in six months for the same person in this past year. Two years ago one senior elicited 21 calls for service.
“Some people are living in dire straits, with no heat, no hydro, or no water,” says Murtha.
“This is a very vulnerable group of people who are falling through the cracks.”
The partnership between the police and Ross Memorial Hospital also aims to bring issues forward to something called the ‘situation table.’ It’s a group that meets bi-weekly, with representatives from various agencies involved, such as police, health, mental health, education, Children’s Aid Society and housing.
It was through the response unit and the situation table that this gap in services for seniors was first noticed.
Other counties have found ways to help in these situations. For instance, in Haliburton, Alderton says they use their EMS service to check on a roster of certain seniors who have been identified as needing more supports, when paramedics aren’t busy on calls.
In Northumberland County, at the Help Centre, there are case workers who develop relationships with a roster of seniors who would be in trouble without some supports. They do everything from free income tax services to taking the senior to his or her doctor’s appointment.
That’s why Alderton and Carron have spearheaded a ‘working group for gaps in senior services,’ serving as co-chairs. It involves their two institutions – Women’s Resources and Ross Memorial Hospital – but also Community Care, Kawartha Lakes Police Services, OPP, A Place Called Home, Elder Abuse, and a local capacity assessor.
They don’t want to reinvent the wheel and are actively looking at successful practices in other communities, both locally and across Canada. This includes a model in Edmonton and another in Toronto.
“But we need the powers that be to step forward,” says Alderton. “We want a meeting with the mayor…and with (local MPP) Laurie Scott.”
“We’re going to need funding,” Carron adds, in order to be successful in addressing these gaps in services.
One of the issues is having safe beds available for seniors, specifically, which are typically relief beds in retirement homes, according to other communities’ models.
Alderton says they also want to do broad spectrum education about these issues, perhaps with a central phone line for people to call in if they notice a senior in possible distress or in a dangerous environment.
The working group is holding an open meeting Feb. 14 from 1-4 pm at Cambridge Street United Church.
“We want as many people there as possible who can help,” Alderton says. Anyone who feels they can add to this conversation is welcome.