Time to stop building massive long-term-care homes and rethink models, says seniors' advocate

Putting your parents in a home has become culturally ingrained, says Dr. Suzanne Brake, but it's time to stop building massive long-term-care homes.

Alternative living arrangements could include co-op housing for seniors instead of institutions

Newfoundland and Labrador's Seniors' Advocate Suzanne Brake says it's time to explore new models for long-term care in the province. (Lukas Wall/CBC)

Suzanne Brake has a lot of issues with large-scale long-term-care homes — from the language that surrounds them (referring to capacity as "beds" instead of the number of humans that occupy them) to how reliant we've become on them.

As a lifelong social worker and the official seniors' advocate for Newfoundland and Labrador, Brake thinks it's time we rethink our dependency on long-term-care homes and look at other ways we can serve seniors outside of institutional walls.

"I think it's a culture that we've developed. We've come to believe that institutional care is the best type of care for our loved ones," she said. "And in the absence of having other kinds of services and programs that are robust and ready to move in and help you when you need that help, it's almost a default."

Long-term-care homes across the world have been rocked by COVID-19.

A new long-term-care facility is being constructed in Corner Brook. The state-of-the-art facility will feature more than 120 beds and be located on the same site as the future hospital. (Plenary Group)

As of the latest numbers given, long-term-care and seniors' homes accounted for about 79 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Canada. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there has only been one confirmed case of COVID-19 at a long-term-care facility.

Brake said the impact in other provinces has been horrifying, and should make people think twice about the way we rely on these facilities.

What can be done differently?

She hopes the pandemic will bring about a change in attitudes toward how we help senior citizens.

"Let's look at making a total paradigm shift and focusing all our services, programs, everything we need on helping and maintaining people to stay in their home of their choice," Brake said.

The first step, she said, is a robust community service model. It's something the province has been working toward — with the goal of keeping seniors in their homes as long as possible — but Brake said we're not there yet.

I don't believe there is a place for the huge long-term-care facilities that we're continuing to build- Suzanne Brake

She'd like to see the province take a European approach. In 1987, Denmark placed a moratorium on new long-term-care homes and instead began building co-op housing where seniors could live together. 

Brake also spoke about places where people with common conditions like dementia can live together, help each other, and maintain dignity and independence as long as possible.

Inevitably, some people will need to be placed in long-term-care institutions at the end of their lives. Brake would like to see a system in which then — and only then — is it an option.

"While I do believe there is a place for long-term-care facilities, I don't believe there is a place for the huge long-term-care facilities that we're continuing to build," Brake said. 

"But I think we should look at using some of that money to build smaller more personal spaces that can be integrated into communities, can hire staff from communities, families can visit easier and I think that generally, people would be happier."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go