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Keith Baldrey: Long-term care projects failing to keep up with B.C.’s needs

Number of people in the province over the age of 75 expected to grow by 55,000 over the next 20 years.
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Despite a wave of new projects, B.C.'s health-care system is freighted with outdated long-term care facilities.

They don’t get the kind of media attention that new hospital openings or expansions receive, but the fact is that new long-term care facilities are becoming the dominant kind of building project in the health-care system.

In the past four months alone, six new LTC facilities that will add almost 1,300 additional beds were announced for construction. They are to be in Vancouver, Delta, Richmond, Abbotsford, Colwood and Campbell River.

These new facilities cannot be built fast enough, for two reasons.

For one thing, B.C. has a lot of aging LTC facilities that fall woefully short of providing acceptable levels of care. In fact, of the existing 127 LTC and assisted living facilities operated by the health authorities, 45 were built before 1980 and 17 were built before 1970, or more than 50 years ago.

Secondly, our senior population is growing quickly and is projected to rise even faster over the next 20 years. An additional 55,000 people over the age of 75 are projected to be added to the population over that time period.

In Surrey alone, the number of people over the age of 80 is projected to increase by 240 per cent in that time. By 2040, the 75-and-over population is expected to represent 14 per cent of all British Columbians, almost double the current percentage of 8.5 per cent.

The average age of our current facilities is 37 years. As someone who toured several facilities prior to placing a family member in LTC, I can attest to the uneven levels of care that exist in the system (luckily, we were able to place our family member in a modern facility, which is tremendously better than some of the older ones I toured).

For decades, we lacked urgency when it came to building new facilities. Our senior population was not growing at a rapid rate, although many studies showed we were on a path to bring us to where we are now.

Nevertheless, few LTC facilities were built for many years. In the Island Health region (which has the highest proportion of seniors), just three new facilities were opened in the past 22 years, creating just 231 beds.

Despite the recent spate of new LTC projects being announced, more must be done.

B.C. seniors’ advocate Isobel Mackenzie recently released a report urging the government to quickly build more assisted living facilities to accommodate the increased demand.

Very few new units were added during the last five years despite the steady rise in the number of people who need them, her report found (as an aside, Mackenzie is stepping down next spring and her fierce advocacy will be sorely missed).

Building more LTC and assisted living facilities would have a direct and positive impact on our health care system. Most obviously, more facilities mean fewer frail seniors will occupy hospital beds, and will receive better care in a non-hospital facility.

Our population is greying, and it is greying quickly.

Big-ticket health projects like the new St. Paul’s Hospital and a new Burnaby General Hospital may generate the headlines, but the fact is that a growing number of communities likely will put the construction of new LTC facilities higher on their priority list than new hospitals in the coming years.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca