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Gaffe underlines concerns about care for elderly

May 19 2012

Carol Arcus listened to the phone message in disbelief: The Vancouver Island Health Authority wanted to know if her father still wanted to be transferred from the Priory to the Lodge at Broadmead. The thing is, her dad died in 2010.

Arcus was, as might be expected, shocked. But now, a week later, the Toronto woman also wonders if the call isn't symptomatic of a broader problem.

"The very fact that we were called about a transfer two years after my father went to the Priory suggests that the system has slowed to a grinding halt, that it cannot possibly be serving the needs of the frail elderly in a humane, healthy and ethical way."

She wants an apology. More to the point, she wants to be shown that wait lists are being managed properly, and that government isn't shirking its duty to care for the most vulnerable. And she wants it remembered that in talking about the faceless, aging masses who present such a challenge to the health system, we are talking about real people like her dad.

Ray Greenhouse came from coal-mining country in South Wales, lived up to the stereotype of being born with a rugby ball in his hands and a song in his throat. Played against England on the Welsh secondary schools team at 18, then made rugby balls out of rope so that he could teach the game to the locals while serving as a Second World War RAF mechanic in Africa. Married Miranda Lewis in Cardiff in 1945, shortly before moving to Canada, where they raised two girls.

Greenhouse spent his last 40 years in Comox and Victoria, deeply immersed in the rugby community. A plaque at the Castaway Wanderers clubhouse is a reminder of the gifted pianist who could always get the singing started.

He was admitted to Royal Jubilee Hospital in January 2010, then to the Priory - it had the first bed to come open - that August. He was placed on the wait list for the family's first choice, the Lodge at Broadmead, but died in Victoria General on Dec. 15, 2010.

Then came last week's call to Arcus's sister, asking if Greenhouse was still looking to move. Ironic, in that the sisters had been hoping to hear from VIHA about a place for their mother, now in private care.

Arcus stresses that their issue is not with the person who made the call. "I kind of feel sorry for a well-meaning employee who gets caught as a cog in that wheel." But she still thinks people should be outraged by what happens to the vulnerable elderly.

Lois Cosgrave, VIHA's director of home and community care, said the health authority will try to fix whatever allowed the error to happen. "I really want to apologize to the family."

She said VIHA's priority is to strengthen community supports so that people can be housed in their own homes as long as possible. "We can't just have residential-care beds as the only solution."

That said, it's no secret that demand outstrips capacity on Vancouver Island. VIHA has roughly 5,000 residential beds. All are full.

Those beds are filled according to need, not length of time on a wait list, Cosgrave said. It's not like the old first-come, firstserved method that left people trying to decide when to jump on the train, submitting their names in the hope that a bed would come free when needed but not before they were ready to go; those who declined a place risked snakes-and-laddering to the bottom of the list.

Still, anyone who has tried to find care for a failing loved one knows the system is stretched.

"There are estimates that 10 to 15 per cent of hospital beds in B.C. are filled with seniors waiting for care," said MLA Carole James, who has spoken to Arcus.

"It shows the pressure families are under, and it shows the pressure the system is under. We need more capacity."

If you think there's a shortage now, just wait until all those Baby Boomers, the ones who are trying to find residential care for their aging parents, need such housing themselves.

"It is just going to be horrific when we really do need those beds if we don't do something now," Arcus said. "It's like everyone is in denial."

jknox@timescolonist.com

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