Waiting for long-term care in Ontario

The Ontario Health Quality council reported in 2010 that wait times for a long-term care bed in Ontario have tripled since 2005.  

A substantial number of people who are waiting for long-term care – and some who are currently in long-term care – could be cared for at home or in “assisted living” facilities if they were provided with the right kind of support.

Whether or not more long-term care beds are required to meet the needs of the aging population depends on the quality and availability of home care services.

What kinds of programs are needed by frail seniors or ill people living at home?

The needs of people who become ill vary enormously. Some have a sudden illness from which they recover completely – for example an episode of food poisoning. Others have a sudden illness that leaves them severely disabled and unable to live at home no matter what supports are provided – for example a severe stroke. Still others have one or more chronic, progressive illnesses and can still live at home, but only if they receive sophisticated support – for example a senior with osteoporosis and dementia who has suffered a hip fracture.

In Ontario, Community Care Access Centres (CCAC) coordinate and pay for a variety of health care and support services – nursing, bathing, house cleaning and transportation, for example – for people living in their own homes. CCACs provide a range of services, such as palliative care for those who wish to die at home, home care for people trying to manage many complex conditions and assistance with the long-term care admission and placement process.

Many Ontarians waiting for long-term care

Right now there are about 4700 patients in Ontario hospitals waiting for an “alternate level of care” to hospital, such as long-term care. These patients are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “bed blockers.” The percent of hospital beds occupied by such individuals (16%) has not changed very much over the last four years. More than half of these people are waiting for a long-term care bed.

The percentage of hospital beds occupied by people who no longer require acute care varies widely across the province, from 30% in the northeast, to 9% in Mississauga-Halton. The differences across Ontario have been attributed to geography and differences in the services available. People living in rural and remote areas have a difficult time finding long-term care beds that are close to home.

To learn more about alternate level of care patients in Ontario, please read our story on ‘Gridlock in Ontario’s Hospitals’.

There are over 20,000 people at any given time waiting for a long-term care bed in Ontario, most of whom are waiting in the community. For direct transfer from hospital to long-term care, the average wait time is 50 days. People waiting in hospital tend to have higher needs and are encouraged to take the first available long-term care bed. For people waiting in the community, the wait time is almost 6 months.

A study conducted in Toronto in 2007-2008 found that about 1 in 5 people on the waiting list for long-term care actually had low medical or support needs, while just under half had high to very high needs. This suggests that between one third and half of people waiting for long-term care probably don’t need it, if they could receive appropriate support in the home and community. Stacey Daub, one of the authors of this study and chief executive officer of the Toronto Central CCAC, says that “what happens to a system under pressure is that people are looking for a place, and long-term care is the default destination.”

Some argue that Ontario’s health care system is not providing its citizens with the quality and quantity of home care that is needed for people to remain in their own homes.

Why does Ontario still not have optimal home care, assisted living and nursing home care?

When Medicare was established in the 1960s, and even when the Canada Health Act was passed in 1984, physician and hospital services were the most important and costly aspects of health care. But over the last 30 years, it has become clear that home care and long-term care are also crucially important. Because these sectors are not covered by the Canada Health Act, there is a patchwork of funding and delivery approaches to these services. Furthermore, home care and long-term care are not well integrated with physician care and hospital care.

Much of the recent media focus on inadequate access to long-term care has occurred because of concern about the number of hospital beds that are occupied by “alternate level of care” patients, and the impact this has upon overcrowding in emergency departments. However, it is important to remember that even more seniors are waiting for long-term care beds in the community, and their families may be struggling to care for them in their own homes. Jeff Lozon, CEO of Revera, a private company that provides accommodation, care and services for seniors, suggested that the system would be better off if home care and long-term care are thought of as an important part of an overall strategy for meeting the needs of seniors, rather than as a method of solving hospitals’ problems.

The management of the health care needs of the elderly and the chronically ill is fragmented. The hospital sector, home care, long-term care and physicians in primary care are not well integrated, and have trouble managing patients as they move across settings and as their needs intensify. Paul Williams, a health care policy researcher at the University of Toronto, suggests that “everyone in the system is so overwhelmed that they don’t have time to think through what the possibilities are for providing care in the community, how to make connections out there.” Williams explains that the lack of integration amongst various providers leads to “long-term care being the default place.”

There are some highly successful models of care that Ontario can learn from. On Lok Lifeways, which means “peaceful, happy abode” in Cantonese, is a program of comprehensive care for seniors at home that was started in San Francisco’s Chinese community in the late 1970s.  This program delivers a range of integrated services, such as primary and specialty medical care, rehabilitation services, meals and day programs for social activity, and helps people stay in their own homes for as long as is possible. Learning from On Lok might make for smart policy too – one study found that costs for seniors enrolled in the program were $1000 less per month than for those who were not.

There are some promising programs in Ontario that also focus on improving quality of care for seniors and ensuring appropriate, effective care. Home First, an approach started by the Mississauga Halton CCAC, and adopted by the Toronto Central CCAC, aims to give seniors who want to try to return home the increased level of service that they need. Another program in South East Ontario, known as SMILE for ‘Seniors Managing Independent Living Easily’ provides seniors who are increasingly frail with assistance through services such as meals, housekeeping, shopping, laundry, transportation for medical appointments, and access to a care coordinator to manage various health-related appointments and providers. However, none of these programs integrate home care, primary care (including physician home visits when needed) and hospital care.

The future

We need to do more to strengthen home care, assisted living and primary care, so that people can be cared for in their homes for as long as possible. Ontario needs creative solutions – and possibly more funding in some areas – to integrate care and better meet the needs of our aging population.

The comments section is closed.

  • Joe Canadian says:

    Unlike most who blame the change or loss of family core values. Or a system where you truly need two incomes to support one household to make it viable. As is true in some cases this might be the case. But just how much can you expect a loved one to care for a loved one?

    Its nice to say or claim added support for a person returning home. I’m sick of the system in Ottawa trying to make a family feel like shit if they say they cannot care for a loved one.
    They should all loose there jobs and hire a new group of retrained social worker who knows this is the worst time in a family.
    Its about money, spending it in the wrong places. No wonder the medical system is as it is. It needs to be restructured from the top down on how each dollar is spent in Ontario. Discharge as soon as possible and the hell with the hippocratic oath. Just be happy the courts aren’t as filled up with cases as it should be with doctors making mistakes doing just that.

    Start building LTC facilities and NOW. If they problem is like this now just think in ten years!
    I guess if your a prime minister or mp knowing you’ll be able to afford private care you have nothing to worry about those that wont.

  • Jillian Alston says:

    In terms of programs that support elderly to keep them at home and healthy, I am aware of a senior social housing project in Toronto that equips its elderly in need with Lifeline. Although these housing units were extremely strapped financially (and sadly, I heard some were facing being shut down due to lack of funding), they generally seemed to keep the seniors healthy and happy. A doctor even came every other week to see patients on a drop-in basis and those who opted not to have Lifeline could still have a nurse check to make sure they were “ok” everyday – which was important for those who have no family/friends to check in on them. While these social housing initiatives may be a strain on municipal budgets, I thought that it was a novel idea to have low-income housing geared for fairly independent seniors that required extra help at home.

    I am a medical student just coming off of my internal medicine rotation, and I was saddened by the many patients we had waiting for beds as well as knowing that many of the patients discharged home, despite the efforts to get them maximal CCAC support, were likely to bounce back. To me, solutions for many seniors seem to draw back to the social determinants of health. If their community care can better address these needs, we may be able to prevent prolonged hospital admissions and bounce-backs. Unfortunately, as noted is this excellent article, there is a long way to go in terms of integrating these services for our elderly.

    • andreas says:

      thanks Jillian.

      What exactly is Lifeline – is it a technology or a programme?


      • Jillian Alston says:

        It is a technology/program… we convinced my extremely frail grandma who insists on stepping up ladders to clean cupboards to get it after she had a fall during the night…

        Disclosure: I am NOT advertising for Philips. But I think the idea is great, its security that if someone frail were to fail, have an MI, stroke etc., being connected immediately helps these elderly keep some independence.

  • Gloria says:

    80% of home care is provided by relatives. I question whether home care with 4 hours of free personal worker assistance from the Ontario government is the right solution for 80 or 90 year old Canadians who usually make up the population of LTC facilities.

    Homecare are presently funded is just a solution to pass on the care of the elderly to relatives(if available) and save money for Ontario government.

    I call Aging at Home, Dying at Home alone.

    • Karen Born says:

      Thanks very much for your insightful comments pointing out issues such as caregiver burden and burnout and challenges of managing the elderly at home. Do you have any suggestions or ideas on how to more effectively provide appropriate care to frail seniors at home?

  • Irfan Dhalla says:

    I just came across a very interesting report entitled “Social care funding and the NHS: an impending crisis?” (Social care is the term used in the UK to describe what we typically call home and community-based care here in Canada.) Worth a read:

  • David Walker says:

    Superb analysis and very well stated. A problem expressed most vividly in hospitals has its solutions in the community, as is so well described by these authors and identified by so many.

  • mgallo says:

    Great article! We need a range of flexible options that respect individual needs and preferences. Most people prefer to receive care in their own homes and communities, and the research shows that these are also cost-effective settings. We need upstream investments to address the root of the ALC problem: not just moving people out of hospital, but preventing unnecessary hospitalization in the first place. There is great potential for more innovative and creative approaches to how we support people in their health and health care. Discussions about patient-centred care often place patients and families at the centre of the health care system but in reality, we are all people whose lives and health care issues play out in a much broader context.

    • Karen Born says:

      Thanks for the insightful comment. Any examples of great programs that support elderly people by keeping them healthy, and at home, which are being implemented in Ontario?


Karen Born


Karen is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and is currently on maternity leave from her role as a researcher/writer with

Irfan Dhalla


Irfan is a Staff Physician in the of Department of Medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital and Vice President, Physician Quality and Director, Care Experience Institute at Unity Health Toronto. Irfan also continues to practice general internal medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital.

Andreas Laupacis

Editor-in-chief Emeritus

Andreas founded Healthy Debate in 2011. He is currently the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ)

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