Opinion

Let’s invest in helping more seniors stay at home – and stay active

As the percentage of Ontarians who are 60 years of age and older continues to increase, we urgently need a new approach to the distribution of finite health resources.

A significant question for an aging population is what proportion of our tax dollars should be allocated to care homes versus a range of community services to assist seniors with the tasks of everyday life and help them stay at home.

Staying in your home has proven to be a safer option during COVID-19. Older adults can more easily isolate in their own homes than in the congregate living setting of a care home facility, whether that be a retirement home or long-term care home. Care homes residents account for 56 per cent (3,858 of 6,884) of all COVID deaths in Ontario.

Although Ontario has 56,500 older adults living in private retirement homes and 78,000 living in publicly funded long-term care homes, the other 94 per cent of the 2.5 million people in Ontario 65 years and older live in other types of accommodation. Few older adults prefer moving into care homes, and many are looking for ways to stay in their own homes for as long as possible.

Younger people often unknowingly harbour ageist attitudes, thinking it is best to do things for older adults rather than providing older adults with the tools to continue living independently. Unfortunately, these attitudes have become entrenched in Canadian health and social legislation, including in the understanding of “care.”

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) reported in August 2020 that most older adults want to live at home for as long as possible and that more of them could. CIHI reviewed the health status of people admitted to care homes over a one-year period and found that, among those living in care homes, about one in nine new admissions “could potentially have been cared for at home, provided they had access to ongoing home-care services and supports.”

We cannot separate the health and social aspects of living as frail older adults. When we are frail, we have a spectrum of health events (from acute episodes to more complex, long-term conditions) and we require a spectrum of approaches (from single to long-term health-promotion interventions) where distinctions between health and social aspects of life are largely meaningless.

The Canadian health-care system and the Canada Health Act places hospitals as the topmost priority. While this choice was justified in the last century to meet the needs of a younger population, it is less appropriate today in the context of an aging population with complex and long-term conditions and disabilities. When the Canada Health Act was the core of the health-care system 60 years ago, older adults comprised eight per cent of the population. In 2021, older adults comprise 18 per cent and in 2041 this will increase to 25 per cent.

Frail older adults who have long-term conditions including dementia, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and lung disease live for months and years in residential settings, including their own homes. People living with these conditions can benefit from a range of services to assist with the tasks of everyday life, wherever they live. These tasks may include the six Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) and Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs). ADLS consist of eating, bathing, dressing, toileting, continence and transferring (ability to get out of bed/chair). In general, if you cannot do two or more of these activities, or if you are living with dementia, you will most likely need assistance. This assistance, depending on the situation, can be provided at home as well as at care homes or assisted living centers.

IADLs – shopping, cooking, managing medications, using the phone and looking up numbers, doing housework and laundry, driving or using public transportation, managing finances – are activities that allow an individual to live independently in a community. Although not required to carry out ADLs, the ability to perform IADLs can significantly improve the quality of life. Often, support of one or two IADLs makes the difference between being able to stay home or moving to a care home.

The Ontario Ministry of Health plans for an “additional” $111 million in 2021-2022 for the High Intensity Supports at Home program to help people with high needs transition out of hospital to home. In October 2021, the ministry announced a $461 million “temporary wage increase” for personal support workers in both home-care and long-term care settings during COVID-19.

The ministry has also said it was investing up to $20 million for a community paramedicine program to support older adults in their homes while they wait for a bed in long-term care.

However, both the National Institute on Ageing and the Ontario Community Support Association recommend supporting people in their own homes rather than creating temporary solutions until older adults locate a space in a care home.

In Ontario, 38,000 people are waiting for a government-funded long term care home bed. To address this waiting list, the Ontario government has promised to build 15,000 new long-term care beds and update 15,000 more. Given the incoming exponential increase of older adults, this plan, which will cost taxpayers billions of dollars, is not a long-term solution.

It is well known that supporting people to stay in their homes is significantly less expensive than living in a care home. This money could be better invested in adopting policies based on the principle that all citizens should have the right to choose where they live. Instead of deferring to outdated policies that have an “institutional” mindset, a successful aging-in-place philosophy should be used when building infrastructure.

By increasing emphasis on keeping older adults in their homes, such investments would allow more people to age in the places of their choice. Aging in place is a worthy consideration that provides important benefits, including honouring dignity and independence, decreasing recovery times and reducing the risk of illness, enjoying companionship with loved ones and promoting healthy aging.

Healthy aging is mostly about busting the myths of being old. Senescence, the normal biological process of aging, limits the maximal level of physical activity, but what does the science tell us about the effects of aging on the brain? Luck is required to avoid certain diseases, notably Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; however, it is now recognized that the risk of dementia can be reduced by 40 per cent (as estimated by the Lancet Commission) by reducing stress, improving sleep and by limiting the overuse of drugs both prescribed and self-prescribed. There is also strong evidence that all that we know about preventing heart disease, including physical activity, also reduces the risk of dementia.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the risk of isolation and the benefit of social engagement, ideally in paid or voluntary work – the more challenging the better – thanks to the brain’s enduring potential for neuroplasticity.

We should value equipping older people with the opportunity to remain in their own homes, rather than relegating them to being passive recipients of “care.” The older adult demographic is looking for a life that enables it to play an even more important role in meeting society’s challenges and, as individuals, to live longer, together.

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Authors

Larry W. Chambers

Contributor

Larry W. Chambers is Research Director, Niagara Regional Campus, Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, McMaster University. Dr. Chambers maintains appointments at the Bruyère Research Institute; York University’s Faculty of Health; and IC/ES.

Madeleine Smith

Contributor

Madeleine Smith is a medical student, Niagara Regional Campus, Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, McMaster University.

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