New voice for seniors talks to students

Isobel Mackenzie has been appointed as seniors advocate for B.C. The newly created position is a first for Canada. Mackenzie’s appointment is a result of Bill 10 the Seniors Advocate Act, which requires the lieutenant-governor in council to appoint a seniors advocate and also fulfills the commitment made in the government’s Seniors Action Plan released in Feb. 2012.

Mackenzie, a former UVic student, has 20 years of experience leading Beacon Community Services, which provided a broad spectrum of services in any given year to about 6 000 seniors. Mackenzie also served on the national level with the Canadian Homecare Association, on the provincial level with B.C. Care Providers, and locally on a number of committees and organizations related to seniors.

The appointment of a seniors advocate also follows the release of a report on improving the care of seniors, after a three-year investigation by B.C.’s ombudsman, Kim Carter, which Mackenzie contributed to. The report found that “the Ministry of Health has not made sure that seniors and their families have access to adequate assistance and support to navigate the complex home and community care system; has not analyzed whether the home support program is meeting its goal of assisting seniors to live in their own homes as long as it is practical; and that it is ineffective and inadequate for the Ministry of Health to rely on responding to complaints and serious incident reports as its main form of oversight for assisted living.” The report also found that the use of two separate legislative frameworks for residential care resulted in unfair differences in the fees seniors pay as well as the care and services they receive.

Mackenzie still needs to set up her office and install staff, but her first priority is getting out and talking to seniors groups and those who advocate for seniors. Mackenzie says, “That will help determine the expertise you bring in the staffing to the office. So I’m not going to sit down in a vacuum and say, ‘okay, these are my priorities.’ I’m to advocate for seniors, so I want to hear what their priorities are. There are a number of issues and I think we’ve seen what a lot of the issues are. The question is ‘okay, now that we have an Office of the Seniors Advocate and we have a thoughtful and methodical way forward to look at these issues, let’s prioritize them.’” She adds that she wants a more focused approach.  “The shotgun approach is not necessarily effective for getting deep into the issues and actually making system-wide changes.”

A big problem for seniors, according to Mackenzie, and their families difficulty navigating the healthcare system. She says it’s especially difficult for those who have been healthy for most of their lives and haven’t dealt with the system until now. The language of the system can be a barrier for seniors. Mackenzie uses the example of a person being asked if they can “ambulate independently,” which in plain language means they walk by themselves. She explains that often those working in the healthcare system may forget that those coming in will not be as familiar with the technical language of the system.

Mackenzie offers a reminder that students will be seniors one day. “Be respectful and mindful of the contributions that seniors can make,” says Mackenzie. She says young people are very fast, but not always right. “Just like the body slows as we get older, our mind and response time can slow, but it’s not indicative of any decline in our ability,” Mackenzie says. “We suddenly jump. We’re impatient, and I think for seniors they need to feel engaged in their community, and I think young people have a role to play in that, and I would give a shout out, particularly on this campus, to our nursing students and medical school folks to think about the care for seniors, geriatric care, as something that they might decide they want to devote their careers to. It can be very rewarding.”

While Mackenzie’s official appointment began on March 31, a B.C. government press release states that her office, located in Victoria, should be fully operational by late spring of this year.

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