In early January 2022, we learned that nearly 500 New Brunswick health care workers are no longer at work because they are exhausted, on leave because they tested positive for COVID-19, or are ill. And, let’s not forget those who have simply quit their jobs. The resulting severe shortage of employees is in addition to the chronic shortage of staff that the healthcare system has been suffering since before the pandemic began.
In response to this unprecedented crisis, on January 18, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard called on every citizen of the province who could, to come forward and help staff in hospitals, nursing homes and special care homes. The very next day, 1,600 people came forward to do their part. Impressive! Thanks to all those who agreed to offer their support for free. However, this solution is unacceptable and can only be temporary. What is planned in the long term?
The healthcare reform announced by Minister Shephard last November did not propose much to resolve the shortage of personnel, except for the integration of practitioners whose training, even when supervised, is not always based on scientific principles. This is the case for, among others, reflexologists, life coaches and naturopaths, all of whom are not governed by professional orders. This is a cause for concern, especially when we know that certain practitioners of so-called “alternative” treatments are sometimes real charlatans.
The detailed reform document, Stabilizing Health Care: An Urgent Call to Action, also calls for New Brunswickers themselves to be involved in managing their health care. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, it wants to use volunteers to “provide support” to seniors. The action plan states that the government will rely on community organizations, among others, to provide seniors with “the support they need to stay at home and live as independently for as long as possible,” regardless of where they live.
Community organisations would therefore have a more important role to play in supporting seniors who want to grow old in their own homes. In principle, this is all well and good, but in practice, what kind of support will it be? Who will do what? How will it be ensured that all those who need support confidentially get it? Who will pay for it? The more questions you ask, the fewer answers you get. If the document does not provide any details, is it because Minister Shephard herself has no idea how this will work in practice?
One wonders if the provincial government, in its desire to reduce spending, is considering shifting even more of its financial responsibilities to volunteers and to families. If we read between the lines of the November reform, in addition to asking more of organizations that represent and defend seniors, it will encourage family caregivers to provide more support to their parents, without offering them the financial resources necessary to do so adequately.
A similar observation could be made about community organisations, which would have to organise activities to break isolation, provide active listening, welcome newcomers, etc. How can the government’s meagre subsidies to community organizations encourage them to take on new responsibilities? Is the government subtly orienting the activities of community organizations to its needs? A concrete example is the NB Connection pilot project, a partnership between the Red Cross and the province. Support services for seniors will be provided solely by volunteers. What is more, since we shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds us, no one in these organizations dares to be critical.
The government cannot expect volunteers to take on long-term responsibilities normally assigned to employees. This workforce, because it is paid, has expertise and obligations that volunteers do not have.
This is especially true since most of the volunteers are seniors. As pensioners, they are willing to help out from time to time, but they are no longer twenty years old. They want to manage their time as they see fit. They don’t want to have tasks imposed on them that they don’t want to do, to have to work under pressure, to have to respect a rigid schedule, to have to report to a boss, etc. They want to feel free to occupy their time as they wish. They want to feel free to spend their time in other ways when they have visitors, want to go on holiday, have other projects or when their own health becomes precarious. They are not interested in replacing young people who really need to earn a living. They may therefore question the volunteering they are now doing.
Already, the retired population, which is itself ageing, is providing a countless number of services, whether within community organisations or informally by supporting people around them: as caregivers, looking after their grandchildren, giving a hand to a friend or neighbour, or visiting someone who is not well. So, as my mother used to say, you can’t ask too much of people who are already overloaded.
Bernadette Landry is a member of the Health Committee of the Association francophone des aînés du Nouveau-Brunswick, a Francophone senior’s group.