On the Treatment of Our Elders: The Mistreated and the Forgotten
Science & Environment Editor
Photo via Radio-Canada
The Western world’s curiosity turned obsession regarding youth and beauty has led to many technological advancements and scientific discoveries, but what happens when the inevitable does happen? Despite representing a large portion of the population, the arbiters of change so we can live in the society we have today, our senior population is abused, ignored, displaced, and pushed aside. I wanted to understand when this started, why it is such a growing issue in Quebec, and if there is still hope that it could change. I enlisted the help of Professor Cindy Mitchell, a teacher in the Social Service department at Dawson, and Melissa Young, a Health Science student at Marianopolis College, to answer some of these questions and to better understand the nature of these pressing issues.
There has always been an emphasis on the ability to work in our society. Especially as one built on capitalism, our worth is placed on how much capital we can contribute to our family and society. This has always disproportionately affected homeless people, disabled people, and our senior population. It is easy to be tossed away from society when you are no longer deemed an active contributor to the intricately laced social branch that makes up our communities, cities and countries. The Canadian Encyclopedia defines the transition into aging “by the individual's relation to the economy,” which explains why seniors are categorized as those of over 65 years of age. Typically, these are the prime retirement years where workers are allowed to begin collecting their hard-earned pension that will hopefully last them the rest of their lifetime. What sounds simple on paper is riddled with systemic problems in and outside of the nursing home systems, both public and privately owned.
The history of elder care and aging begins with Ignatz Leo Nascher, an Austrian-American medical professional. He coined the term “geriatrics” in 1909, admitting that gerontology is “a specialty of little definition and less appeal.” He goes on to describe these patients that suffer from the “disease of aging” as practically “useless” and “economically worthless”. The world of geriatrics, or simply positions working with the elderly, are not sought after due to the nature of the work; Forbes reported that there’s “one trained geriatrician for roughly every 7,500 seniors,” despite 55 million Americans being 65 years old or older. Professor Mitchell explained that while going to school, there was a lack of attention in terms of working with the elderly and a larger focus on demographics such as children, teens, homeless, or mental health. While aspiring to have a career, especially something critical in the medical field, there will always be a question of pay.
An issue in geriatrics is the lack of staff due to inadequate monetary compensation. Mitchell also comments that “usually in professions where there are predominantly women, the pay skill is quite low and [in caregiving roles], the pay is also pretty low.” Chen Medical reported that “geriatricians make an average of $20,000 less yearly than internists who did not complete specialty fellowship training. Additionally, geriatric specialists must endure medical school debt, licensing and certification fees, and lower pay throughout fellowship training.” This leads to a lack of staffing and sometimes the displacement of residents out of their homes, which was the case for CHSLD Floralies-De-Lasalle. The decline in staff can lead to many issues for the residents, something Melissa encountered at the residency she volunteered at. She recalled how, at 17 years old, she was in charge of playing games and entertaining the residents. She noticed how one person, in particular, was covered in clothing soiled with food and dirt, looking visibly uncomfortable. She explained that due to health issues, the resident could not communicate their needs and that, “the staff weren't that accommodating with them because there weren’t many of them.” This raises concerns about why these essential and valuable human lives are not being accommodated.
While other countries, such as Japan, are assessing their response to a growing aging population, Canada is behind that curve. Japan presents the ideas of “confucianism” into practice. Akiko Hashimoto, a Japanese-American sociologist, remarked that when the elderly population made up 18% of the population, Japan began by “consciously and formally [revising] the perception of an image of older people." The Western approach to aging is often ageist and reactive. The shame that comes alongside aging is perpetuated by Western culture’s fetishization of youth and beauty. The beauty in aging is lost among the sea of society’s fantastical anxieties within rows upon rows of anti-aging creams and cosmetic procedures.
The firing of Lisa Laflamme, at least in my mind, was the moment I realized no one is exempt from ageism’s reign of terror. The fear of aging has caused our society to despise those who embrace it. Melissa noted something particular during her time as a volunteer, recounting that her co-worker, not native to Canada, remarked to her how geriatrics and the system of putting the elderly in homes was particular to Canada and Quebec. Within Chinese, Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist ideals, many practice filial piety, which is the respect one should exhibit towards their ancestors, parents, and elders. Her co-worker explained that their norm was to take care of the elders in their family rather than stowing them away.
The pandemic shed light on the terrors elderly people faced while locked away in these residences. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported that “while Canada’s overall COVID-19 mortality rate was relatively low compared with the rates in other OECD countries, it had the highest proportion of deaths occurring in long-term care [at 81%].” The pandemic opened the carefully concealed cracks within the system of CHSLD and privately owned homes. Their non-compliance and deployed preparation in these care facilities are being investigated under a lawsuit. The case alleges that the Quebec government’s failure to implement a pandemic-response protocol at the beginning of January 2020 impeded the health of residents resulting in almost 4,000 deaths. An outcry formed, especially in the United States and Canada, for our seniors as the news finally began shedding light on the severe levels of isolation and neglect residents were facing. However, once the pandemic slowed, everyone put down the signs and pitchforks and went home. “This is not a trend,” Professor Mitchell urged, “this is a human reality.”
These effects are still lingering post-pandemic, especially in our emergency rooms. The Montreal Gazette reported that the average wait time for an elderly patient in an ER stretcher “jumped by more than six hours to 27.9 [in 2022-23]”. This level of negligence is unacceptable and disheartening. Melissa also noticed, after volunteering at a hospital right after the pandemic, that the effects were still present. “A lot of internal issues that were not addressed for each patient,” she said, urging that the government needs to begin hiring more qualified professionals to accommodate the elderly population’s needs. We cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening in these homes. Not all of them have family or a close one to advocate for them, but as we continue talking about it, hopefully more can be done to help.
Our elderly population is among the most important in Canada. Elderly people 18.83% of the population and that number has been steadily increasing. People aged 65 and over have consistently been recorded as having the highest voter participation, provincially and federally, and tend to vote based on issues that affect them. This gives them a lot of political power, and yet, Professor Mitchell comments that “they are not recognized… or sought out for that.” They also hold a lot of power economically. Many opt to work more and build their pensions even in their senior years. They are exercising more, staying healthy, and living longer. They are aging, but they are here to stay and it is time we acknowledge that.
I asked Professor Mitchell if the system, and society's views, could change, and the answer was a hopeful one: “We need to flash a light in terms of the issues, make sure that light is still there and it’s getting brighter.” It is crucial to put pressure on the government and these systems and that we keep said pressure alive. She urges us to look into laws, policies, and procedures, to keep asking questions and requesting to see the numbers and “be part of the change.”
I think we also need to begin depicting seniors as the strong, independent, and prosperous individuals that they are. Television shows such as The Golden Girls and The Cool Kids tackled the stigma surrounding the elderly by depicting seniors who experience love and have sex lives while dealing with the impacts of aging. Animated shows such as The Proud Family also break stereotypes with their powerful character “Suga Mama” Proud, a well-respected part of the family dynamic.
The conversation does not end here with this article, but should instead continue throughout our lifetime with systemic changes to these retirement homes. We must continue being voices for those who need it the most because, when it comes time for us to choose what will be our last home, we do not want to have to fight for our voices to be heard, but rather be glad that we took the time to advocate for those who were in our place all those years before.