Advocates of residents at Evergreen Care Unit and Willingdon Creek Village in Powell River are having difficulty understanding how Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) could allow mealtime food shortages to occur at the region’s two largest seniors care centres.
VCH has confirmed that incidents of food shortages have occurred at the two local care facilities. Both are operated under the authority of VCH, which has contracted its food services to Sodexo Canada.
“I don’t understand how things could get this bad,” said Elaine Steiger, who has been secretary of the residents’ council at Evergreen for the past three years. “For the last couple of years, most of our meetings have been taken up with the topic of food. Usually it’s the quality, but lately it’s been shortages.”
According to Steiger, for the last several months complaints have been fairly common and the food shortages “border on elder abuse,” she said.
Steiger said she even has reports from residents that, on one occasion, some of them were given a nutritional energy drink instead of a full meal.
“One day six residents went without a dinner and were given Boost, and I know from complaints we’ve received that shortages are fairly common,” said Steiger.
VCH public affairs director Gavin Wilson confirmed the Boost incident. According to Wilson, meal replacements or supplements are typically ordered by the clinical dietitian or may be given by care staff when residents are not eating adequately. They are not, he said, routinely given out by Sodexo staff as a replacement for a meal.
“However, there was an incident in July in which six people went without dinner and were given Boost instead because not enough of the first-choice menu item was sent up from the kitchen,” said Wilson. “There was adequate quantity of the second choice, but this was not offered to the residents. VCH management met with Sodexo to address this issue.”
According to Steiger, some of the residents are unable to communicate for themselves and unless family members speak up, nothing is done.
Willingdon Creek resident Doug Grundle said he has raised complaints to management about incidents of food shortages, meals of poor quality, meals not served on time and small portion sizes.
“We get small portions without second helpings because the kitchen runs out of food,” said Grundle.
Joy and Richard Hibberd have been residents at Willingdon Creek for two years. Joy said the food is barely edible at times and not enough fresh food is served.
“We haven’t been getting fresh fruit,” said Joy. “We see a third of a banana maybe once in three weeks.”
She also claimed that beverages, such as watered-down juice made with flavour crystals, are tasteless and coffee and tea are indistinguishable from each other.
According to Joy, many residents at Evergreen do not eat the meals provided for them. Instead, they find other ways to find food, such as from families who bring meals in.
“We’re not enjoying our meals and we should be at this time of our lives.” she said. “It isn’t fair.”
Subsidized residential care costs 80 per cent of a senior’s income, up to a maximum of $3,199 per month, according to the Office of the Seniors Advocate.
Wilson said VCH is addressing complaints from residents and family members regarding the food shortages. He added that VCH became aware of problems when Sodexo implemented a new menu at the seniors care residences in June.
“In the following weeks we expressed our concerns [to Sodexo] based on feedback we were receiving that there were shortages of first-choice menu items,” said Wilson.
According to Wilson, residents who wanted the first choice were not always receiving it. Concerns were also raised about portion sizes.
“I want to be clear that, while on some occasions, some residents did not get their preferred option, they still received a meal,” said Wilson.
Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons said he first received complaints about food shortages at Evergreen and Willingdon Creek from residents and their family members during the first week of August. He said they told him the problems have been going on for a long time.
“I’m a bit worried that [Wilson] seems to be minimizing the issue,” said Simons. “I’ve heard from enough people to know this is a serious concern that has been going on a lot longer than he says it has.”
According to Simons, he will continue to monitor the situation and has written a letter to the Office of the Seniors Advocate requesting the quality and quantity of food being offered across health authorities is investigated.
BC seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie confirmed that she has received Simons’ letter.
“I’m trying to determine if this was a set of circumstances that resulted in something that should not have happened,” said Mackenzie, “and we need to find out exactly how it happened so it does not happen again.”
Food shortages at Evergreen and Willingdon Creek should never have come to this point, said Simons. Part of the problem is the public is unable to see the contract between VCH and Sodexo, he added.
“We don’t have access to the contracts they’ve signed with Vancouver Coastal Health, so we don’t know the standards to which they need to maintain,” said Simons. He added that there is no whistleblower protection for Sodexo staff, which makes employees reluctant to talk.
“A lot of people are afraid to speak out and I understand that,” said Simons. “This is a corporation with 10,000 employees in Canada and we have to hold it to better standards because they are looking after people who are in our long-term care facilities. These are community members who are providing nourishment for other community members and it speaks to our concern about the level of care of seniors that this came to my attention, despite peoples’ fears about raising it.”
Simons said he recognizes that VCH has committed to better oversight of Sodexo, which gives him some confidence that the health authority is treating the situation seriously.
According to Wilson, Sodexo has given assurances that action is being taken to remedy the problems.
“In response to these and other concerns, Sodexo is increasing production in order to ensure they always have leftovers and account for preferred meal choices and last-minute requests,” said Wilson. “Sodexo has also assured us they are taking steps to improve quality and resident satisfaction with meals.”
Mackenzie said this is the first time she has heard of food shortages or residents being given Boost instead of a meal at any BC seniors care facility. She said her office will be investigating for independent verification of Simons’ letter and what she calls VCH’s “massaging of their information.”
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, it happened and we fixed it,’” said Mackenzie. “We need to say, ‘Okay, exactly how did this happen, so we can prevent this from happening again?’”