National, local advocates applaud creation of Manitoba department dedicated to seniors
Independent seniors advocate office needed, says Liberal leader and Winnipeg advocate
It's about time Manitoba had a department dedicated specifically to seniors issues, says a prominent seniors' advocacy group.
Scott Johnston, MLA for Assiniboia, was appointed minister of the new seniors and long-term care department by Premier Heather Stefanson during a cabinet shuffle at the Manitoba Legislature Tuesday afternoon.
Johnston's father was the MLA for what used to be the Sturgeon Creek electoral district from 1969 to 1988.
Seniors care was previously the responsibility of Audrey Gordon, as was mental health and community wellness.
Gordon remains as health minister, with Sarah Guillemard — previously the minister of conservation and climate — taking over responsibility for mental health and community wellness.
Laura Tamblyn Watts is the founder and CEO of CanAge, a national seniors' advocacy organization, and she hopes the department's creation brings important change.
She believes this creates the opportunity for a meaningful and sustained dialogue about aging issues in the province.
"It is a particularly important time for this minister to be appointed with the ravages of COVID-19 hitting the seniors' population, but we all know that the population of Manitoba is rapidly aging," Tamblyn Watts said.
"This is a step to make sure that this government is working with seniors' advocacy organizations and other resources in the field to design the Manitoba that will be the best place to age."
Dating back to her time as health minister, Stefanson has repeatedly said seniors care is a priority of hers.
The premier's decision to split the health portfolio in three parts was met with mixed reviews.
Chris Adams, an adjunct professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, believes there's a need to focus attention on the long-term care of Manitobans, but thinks "it could have been done within the health portfolio."
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont didn't hold back on his dismay of the decision to appoint a minister of seniors and long-term care.
"They're creating a new seniors ministry," Lamont said of the governing PC party, "but what we really need is an independent seniors advocate."
Eddie Calisto-Tavares agreed with Lamont's assessment for the need to have an independent seniors advocate office.
She says that is one of three priorities Johnston needs to undertake as soon as possible, along with market-driven training programs for health-care workers of all stripes and increased hours of care — not simply more hours of care, but more specialized care.
Her father, Manuel Calisto, died in the COVID-19 outbreak at Maples Long Term Care Home on Nov. 11, 2020. Since then, Calisto-Tavares has been advocating for families with loved ones in care homes.
She believes the premier is truly focused on ensuring Manitoba seniors are cared for in the future.
"I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt that she actually wants solutions, that she actually wants to appoint someone that will look at the issues [with] the way we do long-term care," Calisto-Tavares said.
As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority reported 31 of its 39 long-term care facilities have active COVID-19 outbreaks.
"The system is broken. It needs some major changes, not just Band-Aids," Calisto-Tavares said.
Both Calisto-Tavares and Tamblyn Watts hope Johnston is prepared to work with a multitude of seniors' advocate groups to work on finding practical solutions for not only rebuilding the system, but people's trust in it.
Social isolation, supporting rural and remote seniors and finding ways to identify and respond to elder abuse and neglect are also issues that need to be addressed, said Tamblyn Watts.
She added that Manitoba is one of the few jurisdictions in the country without a significant elder abuse and neglect network to help seniors who have experienced abuse and neglect.
"Currently they are abused, they are neglected, they are dying and there's no real hands-on approach to fixing some of these problems," Calisto-Tavares said.
But she said she isn't giving up the fight and wants other families to continue advocating for their loved ones — dead or alive.
"We cannot allow them to vanish in vain and not have anything change."