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You can’t say we didn’t see it coming.
Demographic experts have been warning for decades that as baby boomers — the largest population cohort in western history — age, we will need to adjust our health system to care for them.
And despite the forewarning, here we are, struggling with just that.
Statistics Canada says the country is aging, with those age 65 and over going from 17 per cent of the population in 2016 to 20 per cent by 2024. The oldest baby boomers are in their mid-70s, the age at which many require more care.
At the same time, health-care costs are going through the roof, and Nova Scotia, for instance, is out of long-term care beds. Not a single nursing home bed has been added to the system since the Liberals took power.
The shortage has been well-documented and it has a knock-on effect. If there isn’t a long-term care bed available, elderly patients occupy hospital beds while they wait for an opening in a nursing home. Those hospital beds then cannot be taken by people being admitted to hospital through emergency rooms, and that forces paramedics to spend hours attending to patients in ER, tying up dozens of ambulances at a time.
It’s a vicious cycle, with people’s well-being in the balance.
Nova Scotia’s government says it has spent $40 million in the six years since taking office designing a home-care program that should reduce demand for long-term care beds. Health officials prefer that approach because, in theory at least, it allows older people to stay in their homes longer and provinces need fewer expensive nursing home beds.
If there isn’t a long-term care bed available, elderly patients occupy hospital beds while they wait for an opening in a nursing home. Those hospital beds then cannot be taken by people being admitted to hospital through emergency rooms, and that forces paramedics to spend hours attending to patients in ER, tying up dozens of ambulances at a time.
Also well-documented is an overall shortage of health-care workers. A Nova Scotia panel on long term care concluded last December that nursing homes are chronically understaffed. All provinces are struggling to recruit and retain both family physicians and specialists, but the problem is most acute in smaller, poorer provinces that can’t compete with pay rates offered by wealthier jurisdictions.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, 120 new long-term care beds are being built through public-private partnerships in central Newfoundland, with more beds to come in St. Anthony and Corner Brook. But a public sector union says there needs to be better staff planning in a province where long-term-care staff say they are grappling with untenable workloads.
And the cost of care is going up for patients as well as governments.
In P.E.I., nursing home rates are increasing by $700 per month over the next two years.
There have been pockets of success, though, with innovative programs being designed to improve and adapt the system to the demographic reality.
All of which has been grist for the mill for the Deep Dive series running this month in all SaltWire newspapers. The last instalment runs Friday. We’d love to hear your feedback if this is an issue that matters to you. If it doesn’t now, chances are it will, in time.