Unilingual Nunavut elder moves 2,000 km for a long-term care bed

A Nunavut man is wondering what the future holds for his Inuktitut-speaking grandmother who was forced to leave the territory for long-term care that's not available closer to home.

'It was like kind of a guessing game... for my granny to try and talk to the nurses'

At 85, Bernadette Irkoktee is settling into a retirement home more than 2,000 kilometres south of her home town of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. She speaks only Inuktitut. (Jordan Konek/CBC)

A Nunavut man is wondering what the future holds for his Inuktitut-speaking grandmother who was forced to leave the territory for long-term care that's not available closer to home.

Last month, Nicholas Irkoktee travelled from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, to Ottawa to help his 85-year-old grandmother Bernadette Irkoktee settle into a retirement home — more than 2,000 kilometres away from her home and family.

'All that really matters to her is her family right now, at her age,' says Nicholas Irkoktee. (Jordan Konek/CBC)
"I honestly felt bad about this," Nicholas Irkoktee said. "It's gotten to where we have to leave my granny, who is the heart of my family, in a facility that's nowhere near where any of her kids could reach her physically."

To make matters worse, Bernadette Irkoktee speaks only Inuktitut. When she arrived at the Embassy West retirement home, Nicholas Irkoktee says there was nobody on site to speak in her language.

"It was like kind of a guessing game for translation, charades, for my granny to try and talk to the nurses."

It's a situation Nicholas Irkoktee compares to residential school, noting that people are being separated from their families.

"All that really matters to her is her family right now, at her age," he says. "She means a lot to us."

1,300 elders and growing

Embassy West currently houses six other elders from Nunavut.

Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, is more than 2,000 kilometres north of Ottawa. (CBC)
Jennifer Colepaugh, territorial co-ordinator of home and continuing care for elders, says Nunavut doesn't have the capacity to handle the current demand for elder care and that they prioritize who gets a bed based on an individual's need.

"At this moment, typically we're responding to crisis situations because of the lack of capacity that we currently have."

Right now, Nunavut has five facilities for elders, offering a range of care from assisted living to higher level care. The government plans to open a new seven-bed facility in Cambridge Bay this fall.

"It's a priority to keep Nunavummiut at home in Nunavut and to meet their care needs," Colepaugh said, adding that until more facilities are built, Nunavut elders who need extra care will continue to leave the territory.

'It's a priority to keep Nunavummiut at home in Nunavut and to meet their care needs,' says Jennifer Colepaugh. (Jordan Konek/CBC)
The government tries to support families who are separated, paying travel expenses for two visits per year, either for the elder to come home or for two family members to go south.

It's a cost that will continue to grow.

According to the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics, there were approximately 1,300 people over age 65 living in Nunavut last year.

'I still felt a sense of guilt'

Nicholas Irkoktee said he was taken aback by how nice Embassy West is, and said he isn't at all worried about the care she'll receive.

"I knew she was in safe hands," Nicholas Irkoktee said. "Like I wasn't just abandoning her on the street, but I still felt a sense of guilt, like there's something more I could have done instead of resorting to this."

Irkoktee says small changes could make a big difference, such as ensuring there's an on-site translator available.

But, he says, the real fix would be creating more beds closer to home for people like his grandmother.

"Having to lose her while she's in Ottawa would be devastating."