More than 200 people attended a session with B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie in Terrace at the Happy Gang Centre on Oct. 15. (Brittany Gervais/Terrace Standard)

City to prioritize senior care as needs grow

Lack of housing, transportation, home care affecting Terrace elderly

With long waiting lists for senior assisted-living and long-term care, Helmut Giesbrecht is left with little options for himself and his wife.

“I don’t know what a person has to do,” the 76-year old says. “The issue for anyone getting old is, you make all these adaptions to your home that you think might be useful ahead of time but you don’t know what stage you’re going to be at six months from now.”

Giesbrecht has a progressive muscle disorder that has left him immobile, and his wife has advanced Parkinson’s disease and memory loss requiring more full-time care.

She is awaiting placement for long-term care but has been living in respite care at the Lakelse unit at Terraceview for the last month. But her placement isn’t permanent — by Christmas, she will be back at home, where Giesbrecht will likely be her primary care taker.

“I go home every night to an empty house, I get my supper and sit and worry about what’s going to happen by Christmas. The options are very limited,” he says.

In his condition, Giesbrecht says taking care of his wife takes an immense toll on him. The couple had used at-home care services once or twice a day before his wife went into respite care, but even then, Giesbrecht was left to take care of any crisis that happens when a nurse isn’t present. 

“I just got worn out after two days, I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he says. “The timing is critical. Home support sounds like something great in theory, but when you can’t rely on a person at a certain time of the day when there’s a need, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Giesbrecht says he’s taken it upon himself to make improvements to his home, including a $20,000 chair lift to help get him down to the basement.

Long-term facilities, while offering standardized care levels, can also be costly as residents pay varying rates depending on their income, he says. Subsidized long-term care is capped at 80 per cent of senior income, with assisted living capped at 70 per cent. But if there was an alternative housing option for him, he’d consider it.

“[With assisted living] you get a menu, you go down to the dining room and choose between dinners and lunches, you’re not restricted to one bath a week, and they do housekeeping, cable is free, electricity is free… all you have to look after is your laundry. You would pay about the same as you would in Terraceview, but you’d get a whole lot better accommodation.”

READ MORE: Lack of long-term care keeping Terrace seniors in hospital for months

‘What happened to the North?’

More than 200 people attended an Oct. 15 session here with B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie where residents spoke of their own experiences.

Mackenzie also spoke to council, identifying the lack of housing as a top concern, leaving seniors struggling to find suitable housing options to either downsize or live in assisted care.

Northern Health has three times the average wait time for long-term care beds, and the highest proportion of people staying in long-term care that could be in assisted living, she says.

The default housing option for seniors now is Mills Memorial Hospital, a reality that then places a strain on its bed availability for medical care.

Northern Health spokesperson Eryn Collins says the number of seniors at Mills awaiting placement averages between two to six people with an average waiting time of six and a half months for moving to Terraceview. For McConnell Estates, Terrace’s only assisted-living facility, there’s a nine month waiting list.

“If I had one message to government, it’s that northern B.C. is the priority for new long-term care beds. When you look at the numbers, you can’t come up with any other answer,” Mackenzie told her Terrace audience.

“We have 28,000 publicly subsidized long term care beds like Terraceview, and we have 4,000 assisted living. There are new builds in other health authorities, what happened to the North?”

READ MORE: B.C. seniors advocate touring Northwest B.C.

Don Ritchie, president of Kermode Properties, spoke to council during a committee of the whole meeting Nov. 1 on the issue of affordable housing for seniors.

Ritchie has been lived at the Kermode Park, a mobile home park for residents aged 55 years and over, for the past 23 years. People ask him about vacancies on a daily basis, he says, partially because so few other affordable options exist. For example, retirement home Twin River Estates has a current waitlist of more than 10 years.

After hearing growing concerns around senior care in Terrace, the city is moving forward to elevate the voices of seniors with the province and other agencies.

On Nov. 12, council authorized its housing committee to focus on senior housing needs, and request meetings with BC Housing, Northern Health, and BC Liberal Skeena MLA Ellis Ross to discuss several concerns. There are also plans to communicate directly with representatives at the Happy Gang Centre as a way to hear directly from residents.

“Hearing from seniors really lit a fire because we know that housing has been a challenge for people…I’ve had two family members pass away at Mills Memorial while waiting for a spot at Terraceview,” says Mayor Carol Leclerc.

“What the city can do is be an advocate for other senior needs. We have a housing task force, and we’re also doing a housing needs assessment in 2020. We want to make sure the needs of seniors are addressed in that assessment.”

As mentioned by Mackenzie, most developers who build assisted-living and long-term housing facilities for seniors are based in the Lower Mainland. Part of the discussion at the council table was if the city could invite local developers, real estate agents, and seniors to work together and talk about the possibility of future builds, Leclerc says.

A letter to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing will also be sent to emphasize keeping seniors and those struggling with mental health and addiction issues in separate housing categories to relieve tension between the two groups.

MLA Ross says every region in B.C. is facing similar problems, but senior citizens in urban areas have more variety and better access to services. Policies addressing issues facing senior residents in northern B.C. should be recognized as unique.

“They should be flexible for very specific cases,” Ross says. “The idea that two people living on one pension is okay when you don’t have any issues with rent, but if one member passes away, or the other moves into assisted living, this is an income issue. Instead of going to advocate for every single case, why don’t we fix the policies?”

Ross wants to see the province incorporate possible solutions for senior care into its 2020 budget.

“It’s got to be a really specific plan, with specific asks, and specific numbers. If you just send up a paper that says we have to resolve senior care issues, then nothing really gets done.”

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