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'Granny dumping' troubles Ontario doctor who sees it most over the holidays

An Ontario emergency room doctor is among those drawing attention to "granny dumping" at hospitals, calling it a cry for help from families struggling to care for elderly relatives. 

Seniors' advocate also gets calls from families unable to care for aging relatives

Caring for someone with dementia can cost thousands of dollars each year. Advocates say that's out of reach for low-income families. (Photo Illustration/CBC News)

An Ontario emergency room doctor is drawing attention to what's seen as a troubling trend known as "granny dumping," calling it a cry for help from families struggling to care for elderly relatives.

"Granny dumping is an international ER [emergency room] event where on the days just before Christmas, one's inconvenient elder arrives in the ER with a packed suitcase for a brief stay over the holiday season," Dr. Alan Drummond said in a social media post.

"It's nothing new," the physician, who practises in Perth, Ont., told CBC News in a subsequent interview.

He said health-care workers see it more frequently around the holidays, a time of high stress when families can have trouble coping with the complexities of caring for a person with medical needs. 

"Just before Christmas, we end up with little old ladies brought to emerg [ER]," he said. "Families can't cope. Usually there's a suitcase by the bedside grandly announcing their intention — that they're not taking granny home."

Dr. Alan Drummond, a family and emergency department physician in Perth, Ont., says health-care workers see 'granny dumping' more around the holidays. (Submitted)

While Jane Meadus doesn't like the term granny dumping, calling it pejorative, she sympathizes with hospital staff on the receiving end of a difficult family situation. 

The lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly said her organization also gets calls for help, and not because families are looking for a way out of caring for an aging person. 

"They're not doing it because they want to take a trip to Florida, although we hear that does happen. It's because they [family members] have just burned out."

According to Meadus, 40,000 Ontarians are waiting to get into a care facility.

Exorbitant costs

What frustrates both Meadus and Drummond is the situation was predicted decades ago, given the aging baby boomer demographic. 

"We don't seem to have an elder-care strategy," said Drummond. "This problem is just a sad comment on where we're at as a society and a sad comment about how little we value our elders."

Protests, including outside the Tendercare Living Centre long-term care facility in Toronto in suburban Scarborough on Dec. 29, 2020, haven't been unusual during the pandemic. Many families are concerned over the state of the long-term care system. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"There's been poor planning all along," said Meadus. "Where I live, retirement homes are going up like gangbusters because people who are entitled to long-term care are now paying privately."

But private care is not an option for many low-income seniors, especially if they have dementia.

"To care for someone who has dementia, for example, is probably going to cost you eight [$8,000] to $10,000 a month," said Meadus. "That's why people end up in emergency rooms. There is no option and families have totally burned out."

Exacerbating the situation is a shortage of nurses and personal support workers (PSWs), and an inability to staff long-term care and retirement homes even if they're built, said Meadus.

Drummond said this situation is not unique to Ontario or Canada, with reports of granny dumping around the world. 

He said health-care workers do their best to make Christmas in the hospital a positive experience. 

"It's just a reality of the modern world," said Drummond. "For that brief respite [for family members], granny ends up eating hospital turkey on Christmas Day."

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