It happens all too often.
A senior, Jane, is admitted to hospital for a relatively minor health problem and, while her treatment is successful, she becomes increasingly frail during her time in hospital.
The longer she stays, the frailer Jane becomes. She has taken her first steps along what Dr. Janet McElhaney, a respected geriatrician who practises at Health Sciences North, calls “the cycle of decline.”
By lying in bed for an extended time, Jane loses muscle strength. If she needs a catheter, she could end up with bladder issues.
If Jane doesn’t eat within 24 hours of admission, eating becomes more of a struggle and she risks developing swallowing issues.
Added together, this cascade of problems could see Jane develop delirium, a frightening state of persistent confusion.
If she was living in her own home before the hospital stay, Jane could find herself moving to an assisted living facility or having to depend on the stretched-thin home-care system, a system plagued with complaints of missed appointments and rotating caregivers.
If Jane was already in assisted living, she could be put on the waiting list for a long-term care facility.
For Jane, and the growing number of seniors like her, it’s a realization of a person’s worst fears — the loss of what many of us value most: independence.
With some variation, this story was shared over and over by participants in a June 3 forum on designing a more senior friendly health-care system.
Caregivers, family members and seniors themselves were on hand to share their experiences, their concerns and their fears.
These seniors’ children — often in their golden years themselves — were in tears as they told panellists of the indignities their parents have suffered, because, in their minds, the health-care system failed them.
At the forum, McElhaney said one out of every three seniors admitted to hospitals are discharged with a higher level of disability. That’s frightening.
While still in Vancouver, she helped develop a program aimed at minimizing problems associated with the “cycle of decline.”
Called 48-5, the forward-thinking protocol anticipates the five major issues bed-bound seniors face and addresses them within 48 hours of admittance to hospital.
Beyond having the obvious impact of reducing seniors’ suffering, it ends up saving the system money, because they’ll ultimately require less complex care once discharged.
It’s this kind of progressive thinking we need more of, and HSN is investing a good deal of time, talent and money into exploring them.
Illustrative of this is the the fact the hospital held a forum on the way the health-care system treats seniors. Far from ignoring the problem, HSN is attempting to tackle it with numerous other initiatives, including the development of a geriatric day hospital at the former Memorial Hospital site.
The province is also attempting to address the problem with its Ontario Seniors Strategy, led by Dr. Samir Sinha, who released a report on the issue in January.
Sinha has some good ideas and Queen’s Park seems to have the will (or, at least, the good intentions), but it’s not necessarily backed up with enough funding or solid strategizing to make significant headway.
But something must be done, and it must be done fairly quickly. The Baby Boomers are rapidly passing the age of 65, and more and more, they will require specialized seniors’ care.
In the end, if we don’t get it right, it will not only come at the cost of taxpayers’ money, but also the continued suffering of our elders.
And who wants to live with that?
Northern Life reporter Heidi Ulrichsen has been reporting on health-care issues in Greater Sudbury for the past eight years.