The Current·Canada's Road Ahead

N.W.T. seniors often move vast distances for care. Some elders want support to age in place, with loved ones

Many elders in the N.W.T. move hundreds of kilometers to access care facilities as they age, cut off from their land and loved ones. Elder and advocate Margaret Leishman wants a better option.

When elders leave, communities lose knowledge, teachings: Angela Grandjambe

A new facility with eight residences to provide care for elders opened in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., in February. (GNWT cabinet communications)

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A new seniors' residence in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., offers Indigenous elders the chance to grow old close to their community — but for some it comes at the cost of their traditional daily activities. 

"It's very important to some of them. They want to keep their independence and their ability to be active and to keep moving every day," said Angela Grandjambe, housing manager for the town of Fort Good Hope, home of the K'asho Got'ine Charter Community.

Grandjambe said some elders were concerned that outdoor space had not been cleared for teepees, to allow them to work on traditional hides, and that the residences lack wood stoves.

"Our older elders that have lived in their homes all their lives and have wood stoves … they bring wood into their homes and then they keep the fire going all day," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

That would be hard, your spirit would slowly die, being taken away from your home.- Angela Grandjambe

While Grandjambe thinks the majority of local elders would still be pleased to move in, it's proving an issue for some.

"This 92-year-old elder, I know his words, I remember his words, he said, 'Don't take that away from me,'" she said.

"'That's what keeps me going. That's what keeps me active,'" he told her.

Each of the nine units (eight for elders and one for a caretaker) comes with a bedroom, kitchen and sitting room. There is also a common area where residents can cook and eat together, or watch TV. There has been criticism locally over the cost of the nineplex and how long it took to build.

The complex was built with funding from the Government of Northwest Territories' Housing Corporation (NWTHC), but Grandjambe said "there was no consultation with the elders on what they would prefer."

In a statement to The Current, the N.W.T.'s Housing Minister Paulie Chinna said the centre "was designed with input from elders in the community, ensuring that we heard directly from those who would be utilizing this facility." 

"Architectural staff travelled into the community and met with elders to discuss the blueprints and allow the elders to contribute any feedback they had," the statement said.

"Wood stoves were not included in the units due to health and safety factors, insurance concerns, and the need for ongoing maintenance."

In a statement, the N.W.T.'s Housing Minister Paulie Chinna said the complex 'was designed with input from elders in the community.' (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The NWTHC opened the complex on Feb. 16, after completing four similar projects in Aklavik, Fort Liard, Fort McPherson, and Whatı̀. 

A caretaker is scheduled to begin work on April 1, with elders expected to occupy the remaining units in the near future, Chinna's statement said. There have been five applications for a spot, and three other elders are expected to transfer from other facilities.

The 2016 census puts Fort Good Hope's population at 516. In the same year, 57 households in the town were identified as living in inadequate or unsuitable conditions. 

Limited housing and support meant that elders have often moved to a facility in Norman Wells, 140 kilometres away. Even though the distance makes visiting difficult, Grandjambe said the home provides round-the-clock care, as well as traditional food and staff who speak the elders' Indigenous language.

But their loss is keenly felt in Fort Good Hope, she said.

"The wealth of knowledge they have, the passing on of tradition, their stories, all that traditional history and that — that's all lost to the community."

Angela Grandjambe is housing manager for the town of Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. She thinks the majority of local elders would still be pleased to move into the town's new seniors' residence, but some are hesitant due to the lack of certain facilities. (Submitted by Angela Grandjambe)

The move also takes a toll on the elders, Grandjambe said. When they leave the community, they lose access not only to the love and support of family and friends, but also their language, traditional food and activities, she explained.

"That would be hard, your spirit would slowly die, being taken away from your home."

Elders sent away don't 'last very long'

A better solution, according to K'ágee Dene elder and advocate Margaret Leishman, would be supports that ensure elders don't have to move out at all.

"Aging in place means that if you're in a community, your own community, you should be there 'till you go, 'till you leave this world," said Leishman, a residential school survivor and housing advocate on Ka'a'gee Tu First Nation, in Kakisa, N.W.T. She is a frequent contributor to CBC North.

Elders should "be taken care of in a really good way, because I really believe that elders need to be honoured and respected," she said. 

Advocate calls for N.W.T. elders to be able to age in place

2 years ago
Duration 2:13
Margaret Leishman, of Kakisa, N.W.T., explains what it means for seniors to be able to grow old in their own communities.

In her statement to The Current, Minister Chinna said her government is committed to helping elders age-in-place, including increasing access to a retrofit program that upgrades their homes.

The program provides seniors with a forgivable loan for up to one year, to a maximum of $10,000, that can be combined with other programs. 

The statement noted the removal of some criteria to access the fund, including home insurance or land tenure. It added that now "only the income of the applicant and co-applicant will be considered, not any other income earner in the household."

But Leishman wants to see "even two or three units" built in communities, that will allow elders to stay active, and offer their knowledge as teachers and community leaders until the end of their lives.

If instead those elders are sent away, the loneliness means "they don't usually last very long," she said.

Leishman, 77, is one of five elders living in Kakisa, which had a population of 36 according to the 2016 census. She lives with her son and grandson.

Their support has made it possible for her to stay on the land she loves, and has lived on most of her life. 

"Ever since I was little, I was told that the land and the water was my teacher, my guidance for life because of the stories and legends that were passed on to me from my ancestors," she said.

"I could never see myself leaving. I have to be here." 

Elders are 'keepers of our society'

Kakisa is about an hour and a half from the nearest major town, Hay River. 

That distance can make it hard for seniors to access the services they need, with Leishman saying she knows elders who don't have access to a vehicle, and others who struggle with technology like cell phones or online banking. 

"I really feel for my elders; that's why I keep advocating for them that services will be better," she said.

Why this N.WT. woman sees being an elder as the 'highest honour'

4 years ago
Duration 3:24
Margaret Leishman is an elder living in Kakisa, N.W.T. She describes in her own words what being an elder means to her.

Leishman said elders need interpreters to ensure they can communicate in their own language. Units should also be well built against the cold, and have care support and safety plans in place.

Bringing those services to communities would also bring employment, she added.

"Elders should be used at every event so that they just don't sit idle at home and feel useless; they need to be part of the community involvement," she told Galloway.

"We need to be really careful and give a lot of support to the elders in our country, because I think that without them, we cannot go forward in a good way."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson, with additional gathering and files from Lawrence Nayally, Peter Sheldon and Alex Brockman.

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This story is the part of Canada's Road Ahead, The Current's series talking to Canadians about how the pandemic has changed their lives, and what comes next. Read more of those stories below.

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