Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thoughts on Aging in Place in Fort McMurray

I fully admit that I have been hesitant to wade into this because of the potential for backlash. I am no glutton for punishment, and sometimes saying what you think makes you a target, too, But sometimes you must say what you think, and since that is what this blog has always been about I decided to follow that credo today.

I am writing about the aging in place, long term care, and continuing care debate in our community. And before anyone demands to see my credentials to even speak to this topic I would like to note that I am less than a decade away from being able to legitimately order from the seniors menu at most restaurants. I am less than two decades away from being formally considered a senior by most government programs and services, and frankly my poor soccer-damaged and early-arthritic knees tell me I might be there already. I saw two parents through their elderly years, both dying at 81, and both requiring different services and homes as they aged (my father, who died of lung cancer, was cared for at home by my family and visiting nurses until he spent his last few weeks in palliative care, while my mother used both a continuing care facility while she recovered from a massive stroke in her seventies, and spent her last years in an aging in place facility). Am I an "expert" in this situation? No, and I would suggest few of us discussing it are - but I do bring some life experience, and some knowledge of how I feel as I get older. I bring that with me to the dialogue today.

The debate currently raging is often being predicated with the words "just give the seniors what they want" - and I truly wish it were that simple. I want to be extremely clear here: I have tremendous respect for the seniors of this community, the founding fathers and mothers who built this place, contributed to it in ways we cannot imagine, and who now wish to spend the last years here. My opinion has nothing to do with disrespect or not hearing them - it has to do with thinking about the needs of current seniors, as well as those decades from now - like me.

We are considering building two facilities, one to the north in Parsons Creek and one downtown on Willow Square. The current situation sees a great level of distrust and lack of faith in the levels of government to accomplish one facility, let alone both, and that distrust and lack of faith has been sadly well earned by governments who have let this slide for far too long. It is certainly government inaction and neglect that has led us to this place, and I do not let that escape me for a moment - but I think the time has come to put aside those thoughts, and arguments over who did what, when, and why to whom, and how, and simply start talking about building for today - and for tomorrow.

I believe we need two facilities in Fort McMurray, given our projected growth. And while this is a young community we do have a surprising number of baby boomers here, and ones who may well wish to retire here and live out their remaining years in the community they helped to establish. I think building only one facility - either north or downtown - would continue the pattern of too little, too late, that has plagued us in infrastructure and that we continue to struggle with daily. We need to develop some long-term vision so we are thinking about the seniors of today, their wants and needs - AND the seniors of tomorrow, and what they might want.

My mother had options when she chose an aging in place facility. She lived in a large city, and could have chosen a downtown location, but she chose one in the suburbs. Why? Because she could walk down residential streets and see children playing. She could enjoy the gardens and the parks. She and her fellow community (and it was very much a community of seniors) didn't have to worry about their fellow members who suffered from dementia wandering into heavy traffic, because they were in a quiet area with only local vehicles. Yes, she had to travel to a hospital if she needed one, and she took a bus the aging in place centre provided to do her shopping - but she was close to her family doctor, which as she aged was far more important than being close to the hospital (in her waning years she visited her family doctor almost weekly). She was close to the neighbourhoods where her children and grandchildren lived, too, and that mattered to her. The important point in this is that it worked for her - she had the choice and the option and she chose how she wanted to spend her remaining years - and isn't that what we all want? Choices and options?

I recognize there are those who think we should forego building at Parsons Creek in order to get Willow Square going faster, including the concept of rerouting the money for the north location into downtown. This worries me, because I then suspect it means we will not get a facility on the north side, and we will have once again limited our options and our choices as we age. And while this may seem to address our immediate needs and desires I am not so certain it addresses our long term goals of sustainability, community, and creating a place where we can make choices that work for us. I fear it puts us back into a place where we are behind in creating infrastructure - and I believe this is one area where we have been behind for far too long, creating tremendous suffering to our elderly and their families, and an area where we can no longer accept that suffering continuing.

I have written in this blog about our need to make Willow Square a reality, and I firmly stand by that and my belief that we need a facility there. I also believe, however, that we need to take a proactive stance for once - and we have done this so rarely here it hurts - and build for today and for the future. I believe we need to find a way to build both  facilities and to work through these painful and difficult discussions and decisions (and I know they are painful, as I well recall the discussions I had with my parents as they gave up the home they had lived in for thirty years) and consider all our needs, those of today and tomorrow, while letting go of a past of who did what to who. We can never move forward if we are too busy dissecting the past, and so I am hopeful that we can put it all aside and move on so we can create what this community needs - a present and a future for our seniors (and eventually ourselves, as some of us are not so far off) that is bright and full of choices and options.

I think we deserve that bright future, and a bright today. I think we deserve options, and choices. And I think we deserve both facilities in our community, own downtown and one on the north side of the city, and I consider myself an advocate for that vision of long-term success. I spent the last years of my parent's lives acting as their advocate, and I am passionate about the elderly and their needs as I saw first hand what happens as we age. And call me selfish, but I am thinking about myself, too, because I know the path that lies ahead of me, as I have travelled it before as their companion. I will always advocate for more and better for our seniors, including providing them options and choices as they spend their golden years in our community. Others may differ in their opinion, and I respect that - I share mine with you today, and hope it will be granted equivalent respect.

A very young McMurray Musings -
and the parents she loved.


  1. I want to thank you for this well thought out responce to a problem of short-sightedness we are experiencing.

    I believe the city is 100% behind the seniors that the ageing in place facility at Willow Square is needed, but when? The land is still in flux and a struggle over language could prove to be a significant barrier to obtaining this land.

    I believe that once we have Parsons started we can take all the energy and focus our efforts on making Willow Square happen. We have the support to make this happen once the Province has the land. Unfortunately, the Province doesn't have the land and as such, has very limited options available to it until it is transfered. Dealing with one level of government is difficult to do, but we are dealing with three different levels of government and a federal housing corporation with roots in central Canada. There are just to many ways to shift blame and say they are working hard on our behalf and still get nothing done.

    Your blog and audience allows for more thought to be brought into the discussion and I personally would like to thank you for weighing in on this topic.

    Thank you.

  2. Parsons Creek is NOT Aging in Place - it's the 4th Floor of the hospital only 20 km away. The Seniors want the province to participate in Aging in Place - which includes Long-term care and they want it downtown and part of the community they helped build. Building Parsons Creek long-term care doesn't contribute to a vision of Aging With Dignity in Wood Buffalo and removes any provincial capital funding for achieving that. Our MLA talks about two but neglects to mention that the province will only fund one. He believes we need two - let him come back with funding for two and we can talk again. In the meantime, don't pursue a course of action that splits seniors, doesn't address Aging in Place and removes funding from a downtown solution. Interestingly, a big part of the discussion by AHS on Friday centered around the Health Centre - not the long-term care centre. Do you think the seniors may be caught up in a larger agenda here? Why should we wait two years to fix the 4th Floor. We can do that right now. A cynic might suggest that the hospital needs the space and this is an easy fix. You could also consider the a primary purpose of the health centre is to provide urgent care capability for the plants so they don't have to cross the bridge. If they don't want to cross it, why should the Seniors? It's no wonder the Seniors are getting upset.

  3. Parsons Creek is NOT Aging in Place. It is the 4th Floor of the hospital relocated 20km north into a long term construction site. You speak about choice and lifestyle - Parsons Creek provides none of that. Parsons Creek separates couples and provides nothing to contribute to the social fabric of the Seniors community and Aging With Dignity in Wood Buffalo.
    Our MLA speaks about two facilities but neglectes to mention that there is only funding for one. He also suggested that the funding might be at risk. My understanding is that Associate Minister Vanderberg stated last week that that was not the case and the funding is secure. If our MLA wants both then he should come back to us with funding before he puts Aging in Place downtown at risk. Allowing Parsons Creek to go ahead effectively removes provincial funding and participation from a downtown solution. The Seniors want the province to build downtown. They want the provincial oversight that comes with that and they want Aging in Place administered by a not-for-profit group such as Wood Buffalo Housing. Removing provincial participation puts that at risk.
    You have to ask - Who's agenda is Parsons Creek? Much of Friday night's discussion by AHS was around the health centre - a facility not even designed to support or be connected to the long-term care centre. The health centre meets the request from the plants for urgent care capability closer to site and north of the bridge. If they don't want to cross the bridge then why would the Seniors. The hospital needs more beds - what better way than to point to the embarrassing conditions on the 4th floor (that our provincial government created and neglected for years) and use it to create this sense of urgency. Why wait for two years to improve the fourth floor - we can do better right now. If you want something to write about - there's something for you.
    The province itself once supported a downtown solution. Unfortunately, the five ministers who supported that no longer have their positions. We wonder why our elected MLA’s, who campaigned on a promise to support us, now support a provincial view. If you want to say we need both, that's fine but don't break the downtown vision.
    Parsons Creek should not be allowed to go ahead because the real right answer is to keep seniors together so they can support each other – a village. Wood Buffalo seniors need Aging in Place downtown with an integrated long-term care centre so they can contribute to looking after each other – to create the sense of belonging and worth so vital to good mental health. Why is that so hard to understand? Other communities have them as provincial partnerships and there’s been several recent announcements – why are we so different?

    1. It isn't "hard to understand" at all - my point is that we can have two facilities as opposed to one. Visions, and what works best, change over time, and in my opinion the changing demographics in this community support the concept of two, not one, facility. An urgent care centre is in fact desperately need on the north side of Fort McMurray, and not solely for the plants but for the many residents who reside here. In many cities aging in place facilities, continuing care, and long-term care facilities are suburban, not in the downtown core, and it is a model that works well. I appreciate your reply and your thoughts, but I remain committed to the ideal of two facilities to ensure that we can meet the needs of today, and tomorrow. I believe we have a responsibility to consider the long-term, and not simply what is wanted today, particularly given these facilities are meant to serve our community for decades.

    2. And incidentally I believe there is very rarely a "real right answer" in any situation. There are often many good answers, worthy of exploration and development in order to achieve a goal. Fixation on the "real right answer" has a tendency to create tunnel vision and an inability to see other opportunities and possibilities. That is my general philosophy, and not exclusive to this situation but certainly applicable I think.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts. I believe the Seniors support the health centre - it's unfortunate the province elected to link it with the long-term care for some reason. Until someone identifies additional provincial capital funding, going ahead with Parsons Creek will take funding and provincial participation away from a downtown solution and will do nothing to provide the Aging in Place choices your mother enjoyed and the ones that the seniors are requesting. That's not a good thing. If anyone can guarantee provincial funding and participation downtown then lets have that discussion.

  5. Great blog Theresa! I also believe that a win-win approach is building both facilities (Fort McMurray needs both) and putting energy into working together instead of we versus them is a much more productive approach. My concern is all the other infrastructure needs in Alberta are lined up just waiting while we bicker in the sandbox. Maybe I am naive to think that past woes can be healed; however, I know that is the only way to move forward towards all the health care facilities that are desperately needed to meet the current demand.