Canadian Consulting Engineer

As we grow old …

There's no doubt Canada faces a looming health care problem and that governments are having to spend heavily in this sector (see page 20).We babyboomers are already finding out how dependent we are on...

August 1, 2002   Canadian Consulting Engineer

There’s no doubt Canada faces a looming health care problem and that governments are having to spend heavily in this sector (see page 20).

We babyboomers are already finding out how dependent we are on the public system as our parents reach their 80s and start to fail. My recent experience was an eye-opener. My mother, who lives in England, started showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease about 18 months ago and quickly deterioriated. My stepfather — probably worn out from the stress of looking after her — died in February, and my sisters and I suddenly had to find somewhere for our mother to live.

Thank God for the British social safety net. After a few phone calls my sisters found a place for her in a residential home that was immediately available. A year before, the system had responded to our pleas just as quickly by supplying care workers — sometimes two a day — to visit my parents at their home.

In Canada many are calling for increased privatization of the healthcare system. The engineers I spoke to in the course of preparing this issue on buildings and health were almost all in favour of the change.

The seniors’ home business in the U.K. has been privatized already, and from my experience it seems to be working in an excellent way. However, there are important factors. First, the industry is strictly monitored by the government and standards are high. Residents don’t have to share rooms as the poor often do in Canada, for example. And there is a set ratio of healthcare workers per patient — a ratio that seems to be high based on the number of attendants on hand at my mother’s residence.

Further, the British system does not come cheap. It costs 300 a week (Cdn. $850) to keep my mother in that residential home. Her own money is being used to cover the costs until her capital is depleted to a set threshold, then the government will kick in and pick up the tab. The government sets high standards, the private operator provides, the government pays. Whether that’s truly privatized, I’m not sure. Another factor is that many operators in the U.K. are not in it for profit. An offshoot of the original health care authority that evolved into a non-profit organization runs my mother’s home.

When we were first trying to get our mother settled we looked at different residential homes in the area. One was a spanking new facility run by an American company that had just been built on a greenfield site. A bustling nurse in a crisp white uniform showed us round. Everything was pristine, freshly painted, and bright. But the place was dead. At mid-afternoon, a group of old people sat in wheelchairs in a neat semicircle around the television. None spoke, and most seemed asleep.

At the home where my mother had been temporarily placed, and which was the one we decided to keep her in, there is never a dull moment. People and nurses are constantly coming in and out; the residents smile and wave greetings to the visitors; those who are wandering aimlessly still seem content; three resident cats snooze on the chairs. The home was built in the 1960s. It’s old and shabby and worn. What makes it a success is the nursing staff. They are warm and kind and, above all, they are cheerful.

It is good that governments are investing in new facilities, and they should use the best design expertise and technology available. However, in the end, I have to say, it’s the quality of the nursing that counts.Bronwen Parsons


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