Seniors in Eabametoong First Nation are struggling to stay in their community as they age.

A federally funded home care program operates five days a week, but the co-ordinator of care in Eabametoong says the program doesn't help seniors live longer in their own homes.

“There's only so many hours that we can offer during the week,” Nancy Keeskitay said. “Then, when holidays come, it gets harder for them.”

Keeskitay said seniors have to move to Thunder Bay if they require around-the-clock care. With more support in their own community, she said, some of these seniors could age at home instead.

Currently the Home and Community Care office in Eabametoong isn't equipped to operate 24-hours a day. The office operates from Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

"We [don't] have the people to look after them or the facility to put them in — especially an elder with dialysis,” said Felicia Sagutch, a community councillor in charge of health services.

Sagutch said Eabametoong needs more financial support to make that happen.

Daily care can be problematic

Felicia Sagutch, Ann Waswa and Nancy Keeskitay

Felicia Sagutch, Ann Waswa and Nancy Keeskitay are in charge of home care in Eabametoong First Nation. They say services provided through the Home and Community Care program help take the stress off caregivers, but don't necessarily help seniors live longer in the community. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

In an email to CBC Thunder Bay news, Health Canada says its First Nations and Inuit Home and Community Care program “helps to prevent or delay health deterioration and complications.”

The funding  provides “home care services to more than 26,000 First Nation and Inuit clients and provides over 2.5 million hours of service annually," according to the federal government. In addition to the care for the elderly, this includes support for people of all ages with "chronic and acute illness or disability to safely live in their homes and communities."

Nevertheless, elders in Northwestern Ontario have to move hundreds of kilometres away from their homes when they need care beyond what is provided in their communities. 

That could one day be the case for Tenna Boyce, a 78-year-old living in Eabametoong with his wife, Clara, their foster daughter and her two children. He has lived in Eabametoong his whole life.

Boyce’s kidneys don't work properly and he has to give himself dialysis four to five times a day — a task he performs by flushing fluids through a tube in his stomach. A personal support worker comes a few times a week to change the bandages around that tube.

Boyce said he doesn't know how much longer he'll be able to do dialysis for himself.  Lately, he's been forgetting to do it.

"I have to tell him when to do his dialysis," said Clara.  "He has trouble remembering."

Taking stress off families

Keeskitay said Eabmetoong’s Home and Community Care tries to do what it can with three personal support workers, two home management workers, two home support workers and one mental health worker.

Services include changing bandages, administering medications, foot care, bathing, preparing meals, chopping wood (many homes are heated with wood furnaces), boiling water (not all tap water is safe to drink), laundry, cleaning floors, winterizing the house, and so on.

Despite what they are able to do, Keeskitay said she's not sure they're helping elders stay in their homes in the community. 

 “It's pretty hard to say. I can't be certain and say, 'Yes, we are’ … because I don't know," she said.

Home care nurse Ann Waswa, who works five days a month, said the care provided takes stress "off families who have been trying to assist to assist their loved ones at these times of their lives.” 

But Waswa noted that, while providing "a little nursing care" and some general house cleaning, is helpful for their clients, she isn't sure it's enough to keep them in their homes.

Respite services also need to be expanded, said Waswa. 

"You can let someone take a two-hour nap or you can let them go out to the store by staying with their elder,” she said. “But I think respite really [should] be a week or more."

Meanwhile, the Boyces are coping as long as possible on their own, delaying the decision to move to Thunder Bay.

"I don't know whether I'll be happy or said if I have to go to the city, said Tenna Boyce.  "I know that I won't be able to see the people that I know."

This is the second story in a CBC News series examining long-term care in remote First Nations. Wednesday's story looks at Eabametoong First Nation's plans to keep its senior citizens in the community.